What Bigotry Is

First published at 365gay.com on December 4, 2009

“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.