What is a bigot?

Okay, I have a question for you:

Is it appropriate to call someone who disagrees with your political views a bigot?

Why I'm asking: fantasy author Jane Yolen – whose books I LOVED as a kid, I should note – criticized a Tea Partier for reading a children's story to kids at a library at the same time that the Tea Party is demanding cuts in spending that will eliminate those libraries. In response, some guy on the internet [linked to in the link I just provided] called her a "hateful bigot."

Now, I thought the use of that label was telling. Myself, I have always sort of understood bigotry to be directed against something more immutable than political belief. That is, it's an attitude directed toward a group of people who share some characteristic, frequently some quality that they cannot change, and largely based on ignorance about that group. I'm not saying this is necessarily the scientific definition – it's just how I understood it. So you can be bigoted against racial or ethnic or religious groups – for instance, someone who thinks that "them damn brown Mexican wetbacks are taking all our JERBS!!!" would be a bigot. But I've tended to think that you simply disagree with a political belief. So that someone who believes there should be stricter immigration controls isn't a bigot simply for believing that. 

Where it gets complicated is that of course, someone might support stricter immigration controls purely because they are a bigot – because they want to keep out all those nasty brown immigrants who have the temerity not to speak English, say. But wanting stricter controls need not, in and of itself, be evidence of bigotry. (Unless you believe that everyone who wants to clamp down on the border does so for bigoted reasons, but let's just assume that's not the case – I was just struggling for a hypothetical here!)

Of course, as I say, this is just my understanding of the word. So I looked it up in Merriam-Webster's (not having access to the OED at the moment – anyone else have access?), which defines a "bigot" as:

a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.

I think that kind of gets at how I understand the term.

The point is, I find it striking that the Tea Party (or, this one guy who seems to identify as such, at least) would call someone who disagrees with them a "hateful bigot" rather than an idiot or misguided or wrong or plain old liberal. As a rhetorical move, it analogizes being a Tea Partier to being a member of some other kind of minority group defined by an immutable characteristic – race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, national origin (I'll throw in religion, too – it's maybe not as immutable as race; people leave and join churches all the time – but in modern society it seems to me that, especially, Jews and Muslims are frequently judged as such even if they leave those churches; plus you have the sort of ethnic/racial component of Judaism; all very complicated!).

In this respect, I think it's telling that the very first comment on the Merriam-Webster definition of "bigot" (M-W asks you to tell them why you looked up the word) reads:

I looked up "bigot" because I find it very ironic that so called "tolerant" people see nothing wrong in attacking, berating and making widespread assumptions about white, conservative Christians. 

And in response to a comment about anti-GLBT sentiment as bigotry, another commenter wrote:

Cameron, you and the GLBT minority would also be considered bigots for your relentless quest to torture and illegalize(sic) the Christian majority.

(Ah, yes – it's wrong to criticize Christians because they're the majority! Just what our constitution is about: Majority rule wins!) (Sorry, couldn't resist snarking at that one.)

I guess this isn't really new; for instance, I know that for a while now, Republican student groups on various campuses have sought to gain some kind of "protected class" status, on the grounds that in academia, they are the minority and need protection from the majority. (Sorry, no specific links/cites here; just based on vague memories. In fact, I think this was happening way back when I was in college!)

So. I find it odd to call Jane Yolen a bigot for believing that the spending cuts the Tea Party wants to make will force libraries to close and limit childrens' access to books and reading. But I don't find it odd to, say, call Michele Bachmann a bigot for opposing GLBT rights. Is that inconsistent or illogical? Should I rethink my definition of bigotry?

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14 thoughts on “What is a bigot?

  1. NK, there’s actually an article on the Sept. issue of Elle about a young women’s republican movement and some of their experiences in feeling like a minority. I know it’s not a “serious” reference, per se, but it’s does seem to be an issue–these women feel marginalized. Nothing else really to say, brain fried from beginning of semester meetings.

  2. I believe that their bigot response was engendered by Yolen’s rightful characterization of the politico as unchristian. This allows them to get all hand-wavey about their horrible oppression by the godless (or Jewish) left. Gah!

  3. The way I see it is that Yolen was calling attention to the ramifications of policies that the Tea Party espouses and not attacking their right to exist on this planet or in this country. That’s an overstated analogy, but that’s kinda how I see bigotry: as a hatred/prejudice of someone’s inherent characteristics, not their intellectual or ideological positions. But it’s such a loaded term that, excuse my bias (although having grown up Southern Baptist I think I’m entitled to it), a certain segment of white evangelical Christians use b/c they’re so desperate to prove that they’re in fact embattled. That’s a central part of the theology. In a similar fashion, white conservatives, especially of the Tea Party variety, insist that they’re disadvantaged by affirmative action policies, which cost them jobs in favor of unqualified minority candidates. In this scenario, where one is desperately grasping for anything that suggests they’re oppressed, hurling accusations of bigotry at critics is a great way to rally the troops.

  4. thefrogprincess – yes, I completely agree about the embattlement. And also about the hatred of inherent characteristics as what makes bigotry different from disagreement.
    Janice – oh teh godless liberals!!

  5. (I would have to know more to answer that question.)
    What more would you have to know, and in what ways would it impact your determination?

  6. I would need to know the arguments put forward against legalizing bigamy, to determine whether they were rooted in hatred for a group of people based on immutable characteristics, or a reasoned disagreement about the issue.
    But to cut to the chase, I suspect no, I would not call them bigots, nor am I interested in debating the subject of legalizing bigamy (especially if it involves discussion of what straw-feminists think).

  7. It seems to me that Yolen was calling someone on hypocrisy, and to call someone a hypocrite is not bigotry. Now, you may argue that reading in libraries that you want to defund isn’t hypocritical, but it’s certainly not bigotry.

  8. It’s understandable that you’re not interested in debating a counter-example to your claim.
    Try this: “People I like are on the side of Truth, and therefore cannot be bigots. People who I don’t like are opposed to Truth, and are therefore necessarily bigots.”
    And don’t forget to use lots of “teh”s and “11eleventy-ones!!11” to make it all the more fresh and compelling.

  9. NK–I agree with you on your definition of bigotry; however, I (as someone who definitely does not identify as conservative, though I’m definitely white and may or may not be Christian) *do* think that some liberals (and I’m a liberal) *do* stereotype white, conservative Christians in what is arguably a bigoted way. I know a few such liberals. I’m related to them, in fact.
    Obviously, not all white, conservative Christians are the same, but I’ve certainly heard some family members make statements about them–as a group–that are highly objectionable. Nor do conservatives have a monopoly on bigotry.
    I know that you’re not making a point about white, conservative Christians here, but I feel like the example above muddied the waters a bit. In fact, the first M-W reader’s entry seems like a legitimate reason to look up the word.
    Perhaps this jumped out at me because I now live in an area where the vast majority of my fellows are white, conservative Christians–and by and large perfectly lovely, extraordinarily generous people, however we may disagree on political issues. I’ll be honest–living here has challenged some rather nasty biases that I wasn’t really aware of having.
    And, while it’s true that some politically-oriented Christians do try to claim embattled status, which is patently bogus, it is also quite clearly true that many (very likely most) white Christians don’t do this.
    (Sorry if this sounds preachy; I don’t mean it to be. And I absolutely agree that Yolen’s comment isn’t “bigoted,” and I don’t think that political parties should get special minority status. However, identity-group is a pretty ambiguous category, and “white, conservative Christians” does include both race and religion–even if it is a majority group.)
    Blah blah blah. It’s late and I’m babbling, evidently.

  10. heu mihi – no, thanks, I really appreciate that comment. About the first comment at the M-W site, I didn’t mean to suggest that it was illegitimate for the person to want to look up the word – I think I left out some of the links from the one (comment) to the other (Yolen thing) that took place in my head. I really didn’t mean to suggest that all white, conservative Christians see themselves as embattled, or even that those that do have a monopoly on that attitude, so I apologize for giving that impression. (I can see how it would look like I equated Tea Partiers with white, conservative Christians, which I didn’t mean to do – those Tea Partiers who are white and Christian are just a very small subset of white conservative Christians, and I was really talking about the TPers.)
    I totally agree that there are liberals who stereotype white conservative Christians (I think I had a similar experience to yours, in adjusting my thinking about that group, while living in a very small rural town). I used to get extremely frustrated with some liberal colleagues who seemed to assume that if people were just educated sufficiently, they would come to the correct (liberal) understanding of matters – rather than accepting that there are perfectly well-educated people who just see the world completely differently.
    And no, I don’t think conservatives have a monopoly on bigotry at all.
    It is complicated, the way the political and racial and religious combine. I know it’s hard to separate the political out from the other two, but that’s really the element that I was thinking of – and specifically, the kind of politically embattled portrayal of majority groups as victims besieged on all sides – when they are still the majority, and last I knew, enjoyed a lot of privileges based on that status. I didn’t mean to lump all conservative Christians into that group (goodness knows there are a lot of conservative Christians who totally disagree with the Tea Party, and often for some of the same reasons that I do) (which sounds a little too much like “some of my best friends are —-“, sorry!).
    I have no idea if that clarified things or not! But thanks for the comment.
    (I like Susan’s explication – Yolen was accusing the TPer of hypocrisy, and while you can certainly disagree that the act was hypocritical, I don’t think calling someone a hypocrite is really what I would identify as bigotry.)

  11. ktl – I just don’t want to get into a debate over the merits of bigamy because that’s not what this post is about. FWIW, I personally am pro-poly relationships between consenting adults and have no investment in anti-bigamy/polygamy laws, so it’s not that people I agree with can’t be bigots. Some people who oppose legalization probably do so for bigoted reasons, and some probably don’t. Again, I would have to know what arguments they give in support of their position. (“Feminism” is too broad to count as a reason.)

  12. What do we expect from people who insist on misusing other commonly understood terms in English, like “socialist,” “exceptionalism,” etc. This is the linguistic equivalent of climate denialism, creationism, etc. They believe they can selectively redefine the language they use and that the history & consensus of most English-langauge users is meaningless.
    But what do I know? I’m “bigoted” against morons.

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