Error, Bigotry, and Bigots
March 9th, 2013
Bigot. Bigot, bigot, bigot, bigot, bigot.
If you say (or type, or read, or hear) bigot enough, it turns into a meaningless collection of sounds. And sadly, that’s where the word is headed in our national discourse.
But I want it to mean something when I call Matt Barber or Jennifer Roback Morse a bigot. And if they retaliate by calling me an anti-Christian bigot, I want understand exactly what they’re saying. I want them to understand it, too. I want bigot to remain a powerful statement, rich, like loam and manure, not some watery hackword people toss around as an excuse not to think
We need bigot, but we’ll lose it if we abuse it. We have to distinguish between error, bigotry, and bigots. I’d like to explore that — and by explore I mean think about it aloud, offer up something as a starting point, not a conclusion, and see where it goes. Specifically, I want to explore that bit I wrote a few weeks ago (in Bigotry, Part 1) where I made a distinction…
…between an intolerant bigot and a person who hold an intolerant, bigoted belief. I think there’s a difference. No one achieves moral perfection, and it’s insidious — corrupting, even — to act as if there’s no middle ground between perfection and damnation.
I think everybody has bigotry in them. Certainly we all make generalizations. Humans couldn’t use language — nouns, verbs, adjectives — if we didn’t generalize easily and automatically, at levels below the conscious mind. We can’t root out every misguided association and emotional reaction, if only because life isn’t long enough to manage it. And even then, we’re making new unconscious associations every day.
But everyone having bigotry doesn’t mean everyone is the same. It’s like the difference between ignorance and ignoramus. We all have ignorance, but ignoramus is best reserved for someone whose ignorance has risen to a character trait, an approach to life. If they gave up their ignorance, we couldn’t imagine who’d they be. And a bigot is someone who, if they gave up their bigotry, we couldn’t imagine who’d they’d be.
This distinction, then, is crucial. If you decide everyone with bigotry is a bigot…then everyone’s a bigot. The word becomes an empty label with no meaning, no power. It’s even corrupting: Oh hell, if everyone’s a bigot — if there’s no middle ground between perfection and damnation — then why try to change. That presents a question, then: what is this difference? What distinguishes error from bigotry from bigots?
I started out trying something simple: just a basic gradation of faulty belief, going from innocent mistake to hateful zealotry. That was too simple. I ended thinking about bigotry in two dimensions, two crucial factors: sweep and fervor. And because I’m like that, I made a diagram:
Start with sweep: how broadly do stereotypes control your heart and mind? I came up with three categories.
- First: Do you have just a few isolated blind spots, with a strong determination to wipe even those out?
- Or is thinking in stereotype a recurring pattern for you? Most of us, as I described earlier, fall here: we generalize automatically and unconsciously, and it’s nearly impossible to root out out all the crap.
- Or finally, is thinking in stereotype your approach to life? Some people rely so heavily on it they can barely see individuals. They use it to explain every person, every action, and confirmation bias is so strong in them they can’t see contradictory information — or worse, view it as evidence of deceit (like racists who suspect Obama is fake because he’s too articulate).
Then there’s fervor: How strong and energized are your distortions? As you see, I’ve got four categories: intellectual error, irrational gut feelings that are open to change, and irrational gut feelings that aren’t — plus obsessive bigotry, so powerful that people order their lives around it.
Now it would be lovely if all our distortions were just errors of information, easily corrected with better information persuasively given, but I doubt anyone falls entirely in that category. We’ve got big mounds of research showing that most of our thinking (especially our moral thinking) is done to rationalize our feelings. We’re attached to those thoughts because we hold on to the feelings, and we see contrary evidence mostly as a threat to be conquered, which ends up digging us even more deeply into our bias.
So most of us are in thrall to irrational gut feelings. That term might sound redundant, but by “irrational” I mean any of these:
- First: a gut reaction that isn’t actually supported by your own experience or persuasive evidence, or
- Second: a reaction that may have some support, but is out of proportion to factual reality, or
- Third, one that interferes with your ability to think rationally — as when Rick Santorum longed for the good old days before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, when even straight soldiers never talked about their sex lives with each other(!).
Each of these is irrational. Gut feelings can be open to change, but usually through experience rather than persuasion. For some people, though, the gut is so fierce it blinds the person to contrary evidence or experience. In fact, if presented with such evidence, they view the messenger as morally corrupt: only someone deeply wicked would offer such evidence, and therefore the evidence can be dismissed.
That leaves me with a grid of 10 boxes. That’s artificial, of course: real life doesn’t sort itself out so neatly, with clear dotted lines breaking one group from another. And that’s why I put a color gradient underneath, to remind myself of subtle gradations and infinity variety. Still, examining these boxes has helped me clarify my thinking.
Box 1. Anybody in this box qualifies for sainthood. These folk are the great-souled wonders whose extraordinary enlightenment is limited only by the fact that humans cannot be all-knowing and all-seeing — and even then, they work right up at the edge of that limit. Those who place themselves in this box are likely fooling themselves.
Box 2. These folk are pretty awesome. There’s no gut-level animosity here, just the human ignorance to which we’re all prone. The difference between them and Box 1 is that their ignorance is at a level more human than saintly.
Boxes 3 and 4. These are also people you’d like to know, and are the first boxes that could actually be highly populated. As I’ve said, we’re practically made to harbor irrational emotional reactions to groups of things, people, places. What sorts us out from each other is our ability to change. That’s why I label these boxes bigotry rather than bigot.
Box 5. You have to imagine the sort of hyper-analytical person, cut off from his (or her) own emotions, who prides himself on his rationality but who can’t make sense of the world unless he fits his data into a rigidly and precisely defined worldview. These folk can be open to change, but it’s difficult for them to see individuals, so the problem goes beyond mere error. Psychologists have come up with a number of disorders to describe these people.
Box 6. These are terrific people who occasionally baffle you. They have lovely hearts and open minds, but also one or two hot spots of irrational hatred. Who knows why — trauma, or early childhood indoctrination. But just as a person can have a phobia about, say, spiders, and yet not have a generally phobic attitude toward life, so can someone have a wretched bigoted blind spot and not be generally a bigot. To invoke something I said before, you can imagine what the person would be like without this blind spot, and in fact it’s even easier to imagine them that way.
Boxes 7 and 8. Picture the people in Boxes 3 and 4 — but worse. Their fervor and/or sweep are pronounced enough to taint their ability to deal fairly with broad segments of the population. 7ers may be open to occasional change, but they so need to divide that world into us-and-them that it’s like battling the hydra: every head of bigotry they manage to cut off is replaced by two fresh ones. 8ers, on the hand, might not be as sweeping in their bigotry, but it’s broad enough to come up again and again, and it never, ever gets better.
Box 9. These are nasty fucks.
Box 10. I added this to account for activist bigots. Their distortions are so fervent they’ve completely reordered their lives so all they can do is fight, fight, fight the people they so irrationally hate. I’ve listed everyone in this group as a bigot, though I did hesitate: what about somebody who crusades against one group without ever seeing them clearly, but is open and fair-minded about the rest of humanity? But I doubt such a person can remain that way for long. Bigotry, so deeply celebrated, would eventually poison the rest of the heart.
And there you go. Now, when I say bigot, I can know what I mean and share it with others. If someone claims, “You call anyone you disagree with a bigot!” I can reasonably disagree. Or, if I’m called a bigot for disagreeing with someone’s religion, I can quickly frame the conversation on my own terms.
And never underestimate the value of being the one who frames the conversation.
Also, there’s one unintended side-effect. Thinking this through has forced me to confront my own areas of bigotry, my own Box 4. So in the next week or so I plan to do two things: First, explain why I feel utterly comfortable calling NOM’s Jennifer Roback Morse a bigot, relying on more than just an unhappy feeling that she says stuff I don’t like, and second, talk about coming to grips with my own bigotry (damn, that’s hard to write!) about conservative Christians.
In the meantime, chime in. I think this is a valuable start — it’s certainly a valuable conversation — but I can already think of enhancements. For example: I’ve ignored the issue of how someone deals with their own bigotry. Consider: would you rather be someone who is open to change but doesn’t seem to care much, or someone who’s aware of their own irrationality, can’t seem to shake it, but takes steps to keep it from harming others?
That’s one additional consideration. Go ahead and give your own. All I ask is that you converse in good faith, and assume good faith on the part of others.