[Crossposted on Family Scholars Blog, Alas, and TADA. Arguments for the legitimacy of discrimination against LGBT people are not allowed on Alas.]
In this post, I am not arguing that opposing same-sex marriage (SSM) is a bigoted policy. I will be arguing that in a forthcoming post; but that’s not my argument today. In this post, I will defend the use of the word “bigotry” in policy debate. That may seem like an odd thing to do, but when I read SSM opponents, I get the overwhelming impression that they believe that the word “bigotry” should never be used in a civil debate.
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Let’s discuss the word “bigotry.” Starting with what I don’t mean.
When I say “bigotry,” I don’t mean “you’re a monster.” When I say “bigotry,” I don’t mean “you’re a bad person.” When I say “bigotry,” I don’t mean “shut up.”
When I say “bigotry,” I don’t mean that you feel direct hatred or animus towards anyone. When I say “bigotry,” I don’t mean to ask for a lengthy narrative about your many close LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) friends and the prejudice-free state of your mind. With all due respect, none of that is likely to be relevant in a policy discussion.
When I say “bigotry,” I don’t mean “I’m a better human being than you.” Everyone has some bigotry in them, me included.
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So what does “bigotry” mean? In his post on “The B Word,” David Blankenhorn wrote:
…there is a lot of genuine anti-gay bigotry out there, including within the movement to oppose gay marriage. By anti-gay bigotry, I mean the expressed belief that homosexuals deserve our contempt and are the fair objects of ridicule. It’s there, and it helps to fuel opposition to gay marriage. I wish this weren’t true, but it is, and I don’t think that this fact is disputable on an empirical basis. So while I certainly don’t like being called a bigot, I suspect that many gay advocates of same-sex marriage have been called names at least as ugly as “bigot” far more times than I have ever or will ever be called ”bigot.”
The second thing is that the tactic works. It ends conversation. It divides the world into the decent people and the evil people, and in that way silences most anyone with a dissenting view who might not like to be publicly called out as an evil person.
Kudos, David, for acknowledging bigotry in the anti-SSM movement, and that the slings and arrows suffered by heterosexuals opposed to equality are not remotely as bad as the bigotry LGBT people have to live through. I know that seems like an obvious point to my readers on “Alas,” but it’s not a point most SSM opponents would bring up.
That said, I disagree with David on a few counts — such as his implication that using the word “bigotry” is just a silencing tactic. He’s also mistaken to blame SSM proponents for “silencing” anybody, because criticism is not censorship. When SSM opponents refuse to speak in public for fear of criticism, their cowardice has silenced them.
If I say “I think your policy is bigoted,” and the person I’m talking to stomps out of the room and refuses to speak, I’m not the one who has silenced debate.
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Let’s examine David’s definition of “anti-gay bigotry,” which is, he says, “the expressed belief that homosexuals deserve our contempt and are the fair objects of ridicule.” David defines “bigotry” so narrowly that virtually no one, other than a handful of loud extremists, can be criticized for bigotry. That’s extremely helpful if your point is “I’m not a bigot!” It’s not helpful if we want a real understanding of how bigotry operates and harms marginalized groups in the real world.
Let’s take a historic example of bigotry: Exclusive clubs. The word “exclusive” referred to the exclusion of Jews from membership in golf and smoking clubs (a practice that died out by the 1970s). Members of these clubs often claimed to have nothing at all against Jews (the cliche “some of my best friends are Jewish” comes from such comments), and would never have explicitly said Jews deserved contempt or ridicule. The exclusive policies were defended on the basis of tradition, and of maintaining a certain desired atmosphere.
If we say that antisemitic bigotry is “the expressed belief that Jews deserve contempt and are fair objects of ridicule,” then we’d have to conclude that there was no bigotry involved in these no-Jews-allowed clubs. With hindsight, however, we can see at least two forms of bigotry here which that definition wouldn’t cover.
First, institutional bigotry. The rule itself, keeping Jews out of the clubs, was intrinsically bigoted.
Second, the subtle bigotry of devaluing Jews and Jewish interests. When club members weighed their clubby traditions in the one hand, and the legitimate need of Jews for equal treatment in the other hand, they weighed the needs of Jews far too lightly. I don’t think they did this out of any conscious malice; rather, they did this because they were brought up in a society that constantly treated Jews as simply less valuable human beings than gentiles. This devaluation is not as obvious as open contempt and ridicule, but it is an insidious and extremely harmful form of bigotry. In fact, because it’s so much more widespread and harder to address or fight, this form of bigotry is usually more harmful than openly expressed contempt.
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As I use the term, “bigotry” means unjustly treating any group’s humanity or well-being as less valuable or consequential because of who they are. This can be obvious, such as a person in a Republican Senator’s office writing “all faggots must die.” But it can also be subtle, such as a court system that systematically punishes black men a little more harshly for the same crimes, or pressure on LGBT children to appear “normal.”
It’s worth repeating that the more subtle forms of bigotry (other than overt violence and murder, which is relatively rare) do the most harm. An angry slur on a website is sickening to read; but a congressional staffer who wisely keeps such views unexpressed, but subtly nudges policy in an anti-LGBT direction over a career spanning decades, will have a much greater impact.
When our definition of bigotry is limited to only obvious overt bigotry, we’re in effect condoning the most harmful and widespread forms of bigotry, by protecting it from being named or criticized.
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Any group can be treated with bigotry. But bigotry is most harmful, and the moral case against bigotry strongest, when the targeted group is a frequent target of bigotry. This is because the harms of bigotry are cumulative. When I’m bigoted against left-handed plumbers named Albert, that’s probably just a harmless eccentricity; when I’m bigoted against LGBT, I’m contributing to a long and ongoing system of harm to LGBT people.
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Virtually everyone’s mind has some bigotry within. As Richard Davis wrote:
The truth is that almost nobody is entirely free of racism, bigotry, prejudice or intolerance in some form – the world is not neatly divided between the despicable bigots and enlightened, tolerant souls. Psychologists who administer tests to detect implicit bias in people have discovered that most of us have an “inner bigot” who may not be too obvious but who pulls some levers that distort our perceptions and control how we act. [...]
Here’s the truth of the matter – you are not your inner bigot. No one is. If you observe any bigoted thought or feeling that comes to you and ask “is this REALLY who I am?” the ultimate answer will be “no, it isn’t.” [...] If you see these thoughts and feelings for what they are, recognize how they grow out of fear and ignorance, then you tame them. Their power dissipates.
I don’t know what’s inside your mind when I debate you. It’s none of my business. So during debates, I try never to say “you’re a bigot.” (Although over the course of thousands of debates, doubtless I’ve slipped up sometimes.)
But I won’t hesitate to argue that an idea is bigoted; or a statement is bigoted; or a policy is bigoted.
I realize that the “b” word makes many people uncomfortable, and unhappy. It may even make people feel attacked.
But should we really declare the concept of “bigotry” forever out of bounds for all discussion, just because talking about it makes some people unhappy? How can we “see these thoughts and feelings for what they are” if half the people in this debate don’t even want the word said?
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A point about those gentlemen defending exclusive clubs. Most of them were educated people. I’m sure many considered themselves kind people, who would never intend to harm anyone, Jews included. They were smart, they were sincere.
With hindsight, most of us would agree that they were badly mistaken.
To be clear: I’m not suggesting that excluding same-sex couples from marriage is exactly like exclusive clubs. (Every civil rights struggle is different.)
Rather, I’m saying that if they were mistaken, then we could be mistaken, too. It’s possible that our policies, like theirs, are bigoted, and we don’t realize it. We can’t hope to know if we dismiss all attempts to bring “the B word” into debate as personal insults, ad hom attacks, or as silencing tactics.
Civil policy debate, therefore, should not exclude that an idea or policy may be wrong because it is bigoted. The word “bigotry’ cannot and should not be banned from our discussions. And those who claim to be sincere opponents of bigotry should be the most willing to examine bigotry seriously.
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