Signing Your Life Away

Did Phil Robertson sign his life away to A & E when he agreed to make the reality show, Duck Dynasty? Some of the private thoughts expressed at the time took that viewpoint: he undoubtedly signed a contract that included a prohibition against hate speech in public. However, freedom of speech indicates a person should always have the right to address what they believe is an evil, a moral wrong. I’m not saying Phil Robertson was right in what he said about gays, but how much did he put himself under the network’s control for his series?

I have signed my life away. As an incorporated member of the Society of the Precious Blood I’m responsible to them for my public conduct, and my private conduct as well. They don’t keep me from doing anything I really want to do or saying anything I really want to say, but if I engage in moral wrong they can hold me accountable. They limit what kind of work I can do, can ask me to take particular jobs (order me to if they feel it necessary enough), but they also provide my income, housing, transportation, health care, and retirement. My vocation is my life. I made the commitment of my own free will, understanding what I’m getting into, and I’m still happy with it.

Somewhere between taking the least paid short time job and my kind of commitment is a boundary: how far does your employer have a right to hold you accountable for your life choices? I’ve read advice columns that tell people to think mostly of how they can benefit a potential employer, convince their boss their presence is worth the companies’ investment, to the point your life revolves around your job. I firmly believe in a honest wage for an honest day’s work, you treat people with respect, and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. However, there is a difference between working for a franchise or corporation and committing to a vocation of service.

The danger is demanding excessive obedience, asking for more commitment than warranted. Bertold Brecht wrote a devastating parody of Nazism: If Sharks were Men. Governments aren’t the only institutions that can fall prey to this kind of cultural control.  Many corporations in American history had payment systems where their employees weren’t paid in cash but in scrip, which could only be used in company stores, as the backstory to the classic song Sixteen Tons will attest.  People in these situations had no way to speak out against injustice and limited ability to follow their consciences if they contradicted their employer’s interests.

The Robertson family of Duck Dynasty aren’t poor or in an abusive life situation, except for their private lives being on television. They’ve allowed the world to watch them at home, and everything they say and do are public knowledge. I don’t think they signed their consciences away in their contract; no one should do that. I don’t agree with them, but I’m not trying to drive them off television or heap public shame on them: I just don’t watch them.

Whether our conscience is right or wrong, no one has the right to make us sign it away. Loyalty to the Church or the Gospel shouldn’t keep me from speaking out about what I perceive is injustice within the institution, particularly if it’s a crime. As St. Thomas Aquinas would say, we’re always obliged to follow our consciences. As Thomas More says to his friend Norfolk in A Man for All Seasons:

“And when you die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

So how far are we responsible for what we say and do? That’s a deep topic, and we are responsible to those we love and society as a whole as well as ourselves. How much right does our employer to limit our conduct? There is a word for someone whose employer has complete charge of the expression and context of their liberty: slave.


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