November 19, 2014

Thoughts on bigotry

"Bigot" is a word almost constantly creeping into political discourse nowadays. But the term has not proven particularly productive. There is confusion about what bigotry means or should mean, and logical incoherencies within the many definitions proffered. Fascinatingly, in the middle of the chaos, people tend to agree that whatever bigotry is, it is utterly reprehensible. Whatever a bigot is, it is one of the worst things people can call you.

The tension in word meanings, combined with reckless usage and almost paralyzing social stigma, are rather damning to political discourse. We should either agree on a coherent, functional definition of bigotry and its variants or avoid such terms altogether. Perhaps we should do both.

Before going further, let’s crack open the dictionary—err, internet.

What is a bigot?

This is Merriam-Webster’s best stab at defining bigot:
Under Merriam-Webster’s first definition, the first qualification to being a bigot is that you have to be human. Check! The second is that you cannot be a fence-sitter.  You can’t even be lukewarm. If you want to be a bigot, you need to have strong feelings. Is there something inherently despicable about strong feelings?

But of course, the definition doesn’t stop there. Your strong feelings must be unfair. Unfair may mean unjustified or foolish, but I can’t be sure. The more important question is who decides which opinions are fair (or justified or foolish)? Seems like an eye-of-the-beholder determination having its basis in an observers personal belief system. Thus, this requirement seems to say more about the labeler than the person actually being labeled. In short, to be a bigot, you need to find someone willing to view your views as unfair (or unjustified or foolish). That should be easy enough to do.

Now, what else is required? The strong feeling, considered unfair by your volunteer critic, must be negative. The operative word is dislike. You must dislike. That should also be easy to accomplish. Even if you only speak or think positively about beliefs—only ever mentioning the things you affirmatively espouse—you’re impliedly attacking beliefs running counter to your own.  It seems impossible to avoid dislike.

But there is one more thing. Your dislike must be aimed at “other people, ideas, etc.” There are two pieces embedded there. First, the dislike must be outward-facing. You can’t become a bigot by unfairly disliking yourself or your own ideas. Second, the things you outwardly dislike must fall into an open-ended list which includes “people” and “ideas.” What exactly does that leave out? Seems like nothing to me.

So, Merriam-Webster’s first definition tells us is that it’s clear that anyone with a strong opinion about anything is a bigot, as long as they can find someone willing to call that opinion “unfair.” By this standard, we are all bigots, the only question is, how many people are willing to label us as such? If you want to be the biggest bigot, you must simply hold the least popular views in the eyes of those willing to exercise name-calling.

Merriam-Webster also offered a second definition, with the introductory “especially.” Let’s return to that: “[A] person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group).” This provides two specific avenues to bigotry. First, you can simply hate the members of a particular group. Alternatively, you can simply “refuse to accept” the members of a particular group. I will address each in turn.

First, bigots are those that hate members of a particular group. The first thing that fascinates me about this portion of the secondary definition is that it is a necessarily inward inquiry—whereas the first definition is outward. Remember, the first requires someone from the outside to label your strong dislike of anything as unfair. But this definition requires you personally to hate. The only person who really knows whom you hate is yourself. Sure, you can leave external clues, but the ultimate judge of the applicability of this definition to you should be you. How productive is it to tell someone else whom he or she hates or “feel[s] intense or passionate dislike for”? Source.

The second thing that is interesting about that definition is that is doesn’t care at all about any reasons for the hatred toward a particular group of people. So, if you want to be a bigot under that definition, all you have to do is hate, for any reason, a particular group of people.

Now, let’s look at the second avenue to bigotry within Merriam’s second definition: You must “refuse to accept” the members of a particular group. This definition also does not care about why you refuse to accept members of a particular group. You simply have to refuse to accept them.  What does “refuse to accept” mean?

Merriam-Webster offers the following definition of the two words:

Taken together, those definitions seem to say that to “refuse to accept” a group of people, you must do at least one of the following:
(1) Say so: “I will not receive or take [insert group].”
(2) Not be willing to be bossed around by [insert group] and express that defiance by word or deed.
(3) Not allow [insert group] to have something [anything?].

All of these definitions offer additional ambiguities and together they arguably expand the word “bigot” to encompass everyone, everywhere. If everyone is something, why bother pointing it out? You are such a human!

Alright, enough with Merriam-Webster, let’s ask Google what a bigot is:

At first glance, this definition seems simple enough, though it hinges entirely on the meaning of “intolerant.”

Google unhelpfully defines “intolerant” as “not tolerant.” Thankfully, however, Google goes beyond defining “tolerant” as “not intolerant.”

Let’s take those in reverse order, addressing the softball first. The second definition, if it applies to people at all (while humans are in fact animals, sometimes the word “animals” is used in a way that excludes people), seems to describe tolerant in the way applicable to someone who is lactose-intolerant. Do you rash up when you are around people who hold different opinions than you? Is it hard to breath, does your blood pressure rise, or are you otherwise allergic? This seems to be a high standard and narrower than what people are usually trying to say when they throw around the term “bigot.” However, if such allergies exist, they are indeed troublesome.

On to Google’s first definition of tolerant—which is a greater doozie. Let’s merge it with the base definition of “bigot," to get the whole picture: “A person who is intolerant [i.e, not “showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with”] toward those holding different opinions.”

What amazes me about that definition is its breadth. If you want to be a bigot, all you have to do is show unwillingness to allow behavior that you do not agree with. You do not even have to prevent the disagreeable behavior; you simply have to “show unwillingness to allow.” So, if you tell someone who has different morals than you that just shot the man whom he saw with his own eyes rape and kill his sister, “Hey, I don’t think killing should be allowed,” or “I don’t think you had the right to kill,” you have just made yourself into a big bigot. I use that rather graphic and horrific example, to highlight some of the tensions in human understanding of morality. Even when it comes to something as generally condemn-able as killing, the opinions of what should and should not be allowed are varied and complex.

Another thing, showing unwillingness to allow behavior does not seem to only include when you rather abrasively tell people to their face that you disagree with their behavior. Is not a peaceful cast of a vote against the legality of disputed behavior also a showing of “unwillingness to allow” that behavior?

Okay, so what am I ultimately trying to get at? The point is there does not seem to be any useful or productive definition for the term bigot. Because bigot has such a negative connotation and can arguably be used to describe anyone, anywhere, all the word really says is that you as the label-er are willing to stoop to the level of name-calling (tempting the recipient to return the favor and slap a similarly unproductive label on you).

Name-calling adds nothing to political discourse. Let’s abandon the term bigot, just as we should abandon arguably less-offensive terms like “idiot,” “moron,” or any other label that can accurately apply to anyone and accomplishes nothing except birth or fuel petty contention.

Other post(s) you may like, if this struck a chord:
Finding truth

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