What Bigotry Is

"We all know what bigotry is," a friend said to me recently. But do we?

I mean, most of us have experienced it, and we can point to clear historical examples. But can we define it, articulating what those examples all have in common? Or is it more like Justice Potter Stewart's grasp of pornography: "I know it when I see it"?

As is often the case with controversial terms, the dictionary is of limited help here. The American Heritage Dictionary defines bigotry as "characteristic of a bigot," which it in turn defines as "one who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ." Webster's definition of "bigot" is similar: "a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices."

Now there must be a difference between merely disagreeing with those who differ and being "intolerant" of them. By definition, everyone disagrees with "those who differ"-that's just what it means to "differ." And everyone is "devoted" to at least some of his opinions. That's the whole point of having convictions.

So it's not bigotry merely to disagree with someone: one must also exhibit "intolerance." But what does that mean? That one wishes to silence them? Surely it's possible to be a bigot even while respecting free-speech rights. Thus, for example, those who believe that the races should be separated are bigots even if they believe that those who disagree should be permitted publicly to say so. It seems, rather, that to call someone a bigot is in part to express a moral judgment. It is to suggest that the bigot's views are not merely wrong, but somehow beyond the pale. So the dictionary definition only gets half of the picture: it's not merely that the bigot doesn't tolerate those who differ, it is also that we ought not tolerate him. In a free society we shouldn't silence him, but we should certainly shun him.

In other words, to call someone a bigot is not just to say something about the bigot's views, it's to also to say something about our own. It is to distance our views from his in the strongest possible terms. It is also to suggest that the bigot suffers from a kind of systematic irrationality, a logical blind spot that feeds the moral one.

I have long advocated using the term "bigot" sparingly when referring to gay-rights opponents. It's not that I don't think bigotry is a serious problem. On the contrary, it's vital to identify bigotry for what it is and to expose its tragic effects.

It's also important to learn the lessons of history, including the ways in which bigotry can hide behind religion, concern for children's welfare, and other seemingly benign motives.

But there's a difference between identifying bigotry, on the one hand, and labeling any and all people who disagree with us as bigots, on the other. Such labeling tends to function as a conversation-stopper, cutting us off from the "moveable middle" and ultimately harming our progress.

It's also unfair to the many decent people who genuinely strive to understand us even where, for sincere and complex reasons, they cannot accept our position.

There's a familiar religious saying which teaches "Love the sinner; hate the sin." Applied to homosexuality, the sentiment is mostly nonsense. For one thing, there's nothing "sinful" or wrong about gay relationships per se. Moreover, the distinction draws a sharp line between who we are and what we do, whereas here these things are intimately connected.

But the "love the sinner/hate the sin" distinction still has its uses, and our approach to our opponents may be among them.

Many of our opponents are fundamentally decent people. For both principled and pragmatic reasons, we don't want to saddle them with an identity that suggests their being beyond redemption. In other words, we don't want to label them "bigots" prematurely.

At the same time, we don't want to shrink from identifying the evil of anti-gay bigotry, wherever and whenever it occurs.

And so, we can distinguish. We can point out the sin of bigotry forcefully while using the epithet of "bigot" sparingly (though that epithet, too, has its uses).

Because, in the end, we do know it when we see it.

18 Comments for “What Bigotry Is”

  1. posted by Mike in Houston on

    I can’t help but think of bigotry as concentric circles — with the center being the most rabid haters that are wholly incapable of seing the humanity of the “other”… the further away the orbit from this center, the milder the behavior, but the center remains.

    The question then becomes whether or not that person’s gravitational attraction to the core belief can be countered to where they are pulled into orbit around a more benign (humane) center.

    The vast majority of folks, in my opinion, still orbit the bigoted center — but are far enough removed from the nasty center that they can’t see what’s motivating them and uncritically accept their own prejudices… and I have a sneeking suspicion that more than a few derive a perverse pleasure when indulging in the bigotry of voting against civil equality for their GLBT friends and neighbors… the pull to do right is there, but not quite enough to counter their accustomed behaviors.

  2. posted by Rock City on

    I think you’re letting our opponents off the hook. Using your own logic, specifically:

    “So it’s not bigotry merely to disagree with someone: one must also exhibit ‘intolerance.’”

    Is it not intolerant to vote to strip the right of a minority, particularly when that right has no demonstrable affect on the right of anyone else?


    “It is also to suggest that the bigot suffers from a kind of systematic irrationality, a logical blind spot that feeds the moral one.”

    Indeed, as there is no rational argument to oppose gay marriage rights (when you discover one, let us know), doesn’t that then make otherwise decent people who vote against those rights bigots?

    I understand your good intention to engage constructively with our opponents, but we must call a spade a spade. Our opponents are actually bigots. If they don’t like it, they can change it. I don’t think it helps to coddle them and buy into their denial. These people are hurting us, and there’s no excuse.

  3. posted by Lymis on

    As I posted in another thread, I think the word you are looking for is “prejudice.”

    I agree with Rock City that rewriting Constitutions and opposing anti-bullying rules, not to mention steadfastly repeating falsehoods that have been repeatedly refuted (or which fall apart on their own, like the idea that marriage has never changed since Adam and Eve) crosses the line well past the idea of disagreement.

    Disagreement would be allowing gay marriage and supporting gay rights and then, once the civil protections are in place, working tirelessly to have people make other choices that are more in line with your own view. Intolerance is denying other people even the option of choosing to live their lives by other standards than your own. And bigotry, if it is anything, is using lies and falsehoods as the basis of convincing people to support that denial of options.

    Disagreement is saying that people should only marry for the purpose of having children. Intolerance is passing laws that nobody can marry who doesn’t or can’t have children. Bigotry is allowing all sorts of people to marry who don’t have kids and letting them stay married without them, while denying that same right to other people, many of who already have kids, based on the manifest untruth that “marriage is about procreation.”

    Disagreement is feeling that no homosexual relationship can have value, while allowing others who feel differently the full support of the law in equal measure. Intolerance is putting up roadblocks and demanding a lesser legal status for gay couples. Bigotry is trying to guarantee that school children are not allowed to even hear about gay people or gay relationships even when some of those kids are gay or are being raised by gay people.

  4. posted by Joe Perez on

    In my post on Integrally Gay today called “On John Corvino, David Link, and Andrew Sullivan, On Bigotry”, I respond with a fairly lengthy counterpoint. Here’s the part of the post that is intended directly as a rebuttal:

    John opposes “promiscuous” use of terms such as “bigot” for both principled and pragmatic reasons. The principle is that the term isn’t accurate because many opponents are “fundamentally decent people.” The pragmatic reasons is to avoid a label that is counterproductive to their “redemption”. Andrew Sullivan agrees, and adds a faith-based argument: that no one is defined by either hatred or love. David Link wants us to helpful “point out the sin of bigotry forcefully” while use the epithet “bigot” sparingly because it is bad manners (an epithet).

    Their mix of both principled and pragmatical considerations are somewhat in conflict. If it is truly needful to “point out the sin of bigotry forcefully”, then speaking out is a moral good and should always be a compelling motivation irrespective of the consequences. Indeed, both John and David rely at least partly on consequentialism by weighing the practical effects of speaking the truth over a moral principle of speaking against evil.

    John, David, and Andrew invoke a moral principle, but they could go farther than they do in defining it precisely. Their implicit assumption is that it is wrong to describe any person by a label or identity that is inadequate for describing the moral ambiguity of the human condition. Perhaps the reason that they avoid defining this principle is that if it is taken seriously, then it tends to lead towards an absolute prohibition on calling anyone a bigot because it is always wrong to assume one knows the heart of another when only God does. (Andrew makes a similar argument against outing, and he comes to a fairly absolutist stand as a result of his consistency. See his article “Out rage.” 28 Sept. 2004, The New Republic Online.)

    I believe that the explanations of John, David, and Andrew for their views on bigotry while well expressed are neither internally consistent nor universally persuasive. If they follow either of the principles they articulate, they would either always be required to call out bigotry because it’s pointing out sin or never call out bigotry because they can never know another person’s heart. Which is it?

    In my view, their responses are most persuasive when they rely upon consequentialism. Call out bigotry when it’s practical to some moral end (something about advancing gay rights and encouraging more humane behavior all around, I would suspect), but avoid doing so when it’s counterproductive. But such rationales are pretty messy without invoking some way of arbitrating between a wide number of conceptions of the good and making sense of incompatible moral worldviews. No moral actor can really anticipate all the possible consequences of one’s action and they are left with a tremendous amount of subjectivity at risk of falling down the slippery slope of emotivism or relativism.

  5. posted by Joe Perez on

    Eeesh! There are a handful of typos or poor word choices in the above clip. The corrected version is on my blog. I should know better than to click “Submit” without multiple proofreads.

  6. posted by Amicus on

    Let me start by asking this question.

    Some have strongly advocated that the right place to win certain rights is not in the courts, but in the legislature.

    Now, the question is, are “you” ready to throw punches? [Not you, John, but “you” in general].

    I ask, because I sometimes get the sense that those advocating are making a court case, rather than a court of public opinion case, to some degree.

    Are you ready to stand up and breath fire at our opponents, on this issue or another?

    Anyway, my own standard is to listen to people communicated and to find the malice, to find the anti-gay bias. It shows up in both verbal and non-verbal ways.

    If I find it and there is every reason to believe that the speaker or the organization holds it as a considered position, not just a trial idea or a point of discussion, then, yes, that is “bigotry”.

    For instance, the group that fought so hard for Prop 8 in California just turned down a fight to ban divorce. Isn’t that just about as clear evidence as you can get that it is all about ‘the gay’ and has little to do with “protecting marriage”?

    Anyway, 2-cents for anyone who reads stuff to bounce their own ideas off of and make up their own minds.

  7. posted by Amicus on

    “communicated” should be “communicate”

  8. posted by Amicus on

    oh, I should hasten to add that ‘breath fire’ does not mean yell epithets. It means rain condemnation.

  9. posted by Scott Bodenheimer on

    I completely disagree with you. Why should the momentary discomfort that a bigot feels for being shamed for his stupidity trump my fight for equality? He should feel bad. And please don’t haul out the old “ignorance vs stupidity” chestnut either, in the Information Age, everyone has access to finding out the truth, only laziness prevents people from reading about issues and forming informed opinions.

    I know Jesus was a great role model, but giving yourself whiplash by turning the cheek the way you do John, surely isn’t the way to fight a political struggle. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” means that the worldly realm needs worldly tools, and one of those tools is making people ashamed of their hateful and bigoted characters.

  10. posted by Christopher on

    While discussing what to label it, bigoted behavior is hurting people every single day. ” ‘If New Jersey rejects gay marriage, this is the last hope the gay marriage movement has of legislatively approving gay marriage any time in the foreseeable future,’ said Maggie Gallagher, head of the National Organization for Marriage.” Whatever you label it, people like Ms. Gallagher – who is so proud of her “traditional marriage,” she uses her maiden name – have devoted their entire lives, energy and financial resources to a bigoted cause. As a result, they have slowed down the inevitable process of taxpaying US citizens attaining the same rights as she has in the eyes of the law. I was sicked to hear Senator Ruben Diaz (D-NY 32) quote his Bible as a reason to deny me civil rights. Or to see Senator Shirley L. Huntley (D-NY 10), herself a member of not one but two minorities who have historically been oppressed, vote against the NY Marriage Equality bill. I am not in the least bit sorry if being labeled a “bigot” might offend those who want my partner and I silenced and stuffed back into the closet. Or to see one of us denied rights automatically accorded others by because we do not have the same legal right to enter into the contract called “marriage” as two heterosexual atheists do.

    As to the Rabbi who testified in NJ… I suppose he would like nothing more than to take the child out of the loving home of my two dear friends. A child who is NOT hypothetical, but who without having been adopted by my loving (and well-off) “civil unioned” parents, statistically had no better future prospects than to end up in jail or worse yet found dead in the backwoods rural ghetto trailer park he was conceived in. Would he prefer that? Instead this child attends the best schools, is extraordinarily well cultured, well adapted and well loved by a couple who still fear someone might show up to take him away because they missed crossing a T in the avalanche of superfluous adoption paperwork. GLBT people wore pink triangles and suffered from bigotry and the tyranny of a well-armed powerful majority and likely did so within the lifetime of that unnamed Rabbi’s parents. That fact appears to escape his memory, or certainly escape the reasoning he uses to suggest we are a lesser minority than he is. So enough Bible, enough Torah, enough equivocating, enough semantics. Same use of the contract of “marriage”, same meaning, same civil rights. The majority “center” had to be dragged kicking and screaming over the line for women in 1920 and for African Americans in 1965. This fight is no different, so I don’t know why you would spend your column space questioning using anything but the strongest and most descriptive language possible for an oppressive majority. Maggie Gallagher and her groups are now trying to play the victim card even as they continue to be vicious victimizers of others. Their heinous behavior doesn’t deserve a pity party. But like the Rabbi, she also couches her hatred in falsely compassionate wordage. But I challenge you to take any speech she has ever made and replace the word “gay” with “interracial,” “female” or “Jewish” and see if that kind of philosophy would be tolerated by any thinking person in 2009. If Mrs. Gallagher wants to make people lesser than she, she ought not to expect sympathy as well. And just because a Rabbi softens his prejudice doesn’t make it any more worthy of consideration. Call it whatever you wish, but to me, if it walks like a bigot and talks like a bigot, it’s a bigot and ought to be called so as often and loudly as possible until that behavior withers and dies.

  11. posted by Rock City on

    Christopher – thank you for articulating my point better than I ever could.

  12. posted by Amicus on

    Many of our opponents are fundamentally decent people.


    I believe this too. Unfortunately, I’ve also heard some of these same people say the most ignorant things, repeat the most abject stereotypes in the most backward language, and dish out the coldest of “pronouncements” (who can forget the old lady who, going on at length, at some panel or something, told Andrew Sullivan what a *wonderful* boy he was and then left him speechless by ending with a condemnation).

    I’m not sure I believe that there is a large, “decent”, silent majority on the issue of gay marriage, but Martin Luther King, in his time and for his cause, called them sinners, by suggesting their need to repent. Is that better or worse than “bigot”?

    “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”

    Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

    January 27, 1965

    Atlanta, Georgia

  13. posted by Amicus on

    … told Andrew Sullivan what a *wonderful* boy he was and then …


    And even as I post that, I’m also thinking of the time that a very well spoken, measured, woman, with a voice that seemed to exude understanding and kindness, suggested to Jon Rauch that she hoped he would find a nice woman.

    The audience laughed, but for something potentially so profoundly ignorant, is that a form of “bigotry”? It’s aggressive. It’s dismissive. It’s deaf.

  14. posted by Amicus on

    FWITW, I think I may have spotted a ‘silent majority’, with this, from bluejersey.com:

    “Among Catholics, 48 percent support gay marriage, while 40 percent oppose and 12 percent are undecided.”

    These 48 percent, although present in tangible ways, are not being heard.

  15. posted by DragonScorpion on

    It is a bit in the eye of the beholder, is it not? I’m sure we all know people who are racist or sexist or xenophobic but they don’t think they are. But then who does?

    There are those who don’t particularly harbor any ill feelings toward people with an ethnicity different from them, but they don’t like the idea of the races mixing — interracial dating and marriage. Would they be considered bigots? Does one need more information to determine whether they are prejudiced or bigoted?

    And what about prejudices against religion? How about ideologies? They are both belief systems, so why should one be considered a prejudice, or even bigotry, while the other isn’t?

    I think where I have tended to draw the line between mere prejudice and sheer bigotry is if the person meets the following:

    1) is the intention of the person espousing their belief hostile, including the unapologetic use of words they know to be insulting?

    2) do they tend to resort to sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people as opposed to making important distinctions about individuals?

    3) are they seemingly incapable of making somewhat reasonable arguments supporting their view?

    4) is there an unwillingness to be challenged or admit that their view may be flawed?

    5) are they closed-minded to genuinely considering and understanding contradicting views? 6) is there a refusal to accept new information which might undermine their belief?

    7) do they seem devoid of much sympathy or empathy with the group of people they are not comfortable with?

    8) do they really even understand what they believe and why?

    The last one is a bit complicated. Because, in my opinion, it can either suggest that they are completely irrational in their view, and thus would certainly be by definition bigoted in their beliefs, or it could be that they’ve never really known anything else and in a sense they just don’t know any better. Such a person might not be accurately described as a bigot. It would depend on how they stacked up on the other criteria. And 3 of these may really be sufficient, in my opinion. Depends on which ones and the severity…

    Yes, I think really this probably is one of those things were I just know it when I see it.

    I’d like to add that I think sometimes we’re all a bit too eager about using the term “bigot” to attack others and we should be more mindful about how and when we use it. I’ve been guilty of this as well. It’s important because it really can turn people off and foster defensiveness, hostility.

    While we may not care in the least about the genuine bigots, nor should we, we should care about those who may be prejudiced but still open to new perspectives. If we want to continue making progress we better be trying to win hearts and minds, because that’s the only way we will.

  16. posted by North Dallas Thirty on

    For instance, the group that fought so hard for Prop 8 in California just turned down a fight to ban divorce. Isn’t that just about as clear evidence as you can get that it is all about ‘the gay’ and has little to do with “protecting marriage”?

    Not really. Why would you completely ban divorce, as this provision did? The Bible makes it clear that divorce is not an ideal solution to anything; however, it does recognize that in some cases, such as adultery and abuse, that there simply is not a better option. Try a proposition to repeal no-fault divorces, and you’d get a much better response.

    The petulance and stupidity of the gay community in supporting this “ban divorce” proposition demonstrates the degree of rottenness and bigotry that underlies the whole demand for gay-sex marriage.

  17. posted by JP on

    What I get out of what John is saying, is that unless downright hateful such as “God hates fags”, that the use of the term Bigot stops any and all arguments between the divide and creates a barrier to a better long term solution, which is of course equality. Yes, we know these people are bigots, but by definition alone, most of us are in some way or another. We have gotten too used to the term as it relates to homosexuality. What we need to realize is that we will not ultimately gain rights through badgering and calling “a spade a spade”. These kinds of tactics work in few instances and should be used sparingly. Where we are going to win is in changing the hearts of the people and I have seen a lot of this in the past few years. If it were not for those heterosexual people who love and support us we really would be nowhere. That’s my two cents.

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