Error, Bigotry, and Bigots

Rob Tisinai

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.

Priya Lynn

March 9th, 2013

“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.”.

That’s a straw man. Everyone who opposes gay equality is a bigot but stating that is not in anyway saying there is no middle ground between perfection and damnation.

Its just like I’ve said each time this topic comes up. Both Bernie Madoff and the 10 year old who steals a chocolate bar are thieves but that does not mean their crimes are similar in degree.


March 9th, 2013

The difference between your so-called anti-Christian bigotry and theirs is that you aren’t trying to force them to live by your standards.

What they do is advocate discrimination based on their belief that their worldview is superior to others and should be imposed. More so, they say that a person’s fundamental existence is wrong, immoral or disordered. This is bigotry.

When I hear someone say “I don’t believe in homosexuality,” I think what? How can you not believe in something that exists like trees or grass? Then I think about what they are really saying and that is “I don’t believe that homosexuals have a right to exist.” That is bigotry because they believe that a person doesn’t have a right to exist because of an immutable characteristic.

Advocating against this view is not bigotry. The line is fine here and I see your discomfort with some of the more heavy handed uses of anti-discrimination law in the world. Ultimately though, telling the bigots that they are no better than the racial bigots of the 60’s is something necessary.

Priya Lynn

March 9th, 2013

That’s the key difference, isn’t it Charlie. What makes them bigots is that they oppose our equality. We are not bigots because we don’t oppose their equality. Its the intolerance that distinguishes the two.


March 9th, 2013


I’d also like to point out that human beings work with stereotypes — our first reaction on meeting someone new is to fit them into the stereotype in our mind. That’s really value neutral, in most respects — it’s another way we organize information. What’s important is being able to dispense with the stereotype when necessary — such as when you get to know someone better.

The danger is extending those stereotypes to entire groups and allowing that to determine your reaction to them as a group.


March 9th, 2013

Wow. WAAAYYYY too much thought went into this. There are other considerations at play – influences, leadership over others, calculation, personal gain, differences between expression and personal belief… Where do you fit someone who’s logically, internally pro-gay, but who indulges in aggressive anti-gay rhetoric, and leads others in that direction (despite their own lack of conviction) for the sake of a larger agenda? Ken Mehlman anyone?

I think, in short, that you have created rigid boxes for bigots. Which is kind of ironic.

Here’s where I think you’re right: “bigot” is another example of the “nazification” of rhetoric. Words like “fascist”, “nazi”, “socialist”, “liberal”, “homophobe”… and yes “hater” and “bigot” (and others) are all used to short-circuit discussion. They are “absolutes”, overused ad hominem to disqualify any statement, fact, or logical argument made by that person – to discount their standing in the discussion at all. A gratifying “instant victory” button, as it were. But it has a limited shelflife.

As you describe… overused, these terms diminish the power of the word (which holocaust survivors, for example should and do find objectionable vis a vis “nazi”)

They also alienate people in the middle who see some sympathy with both sides of an argument and just need to sort out things for themselves. They are, however, a great tool to use to shape public opinion with the great unthinking masses.

Until the other side masters their approach, and uses the identical term (no matter how illogical) to both disarm their opponent and gain equal standing in the argument.

It’s a very potent tool, especially when addressing 3rd parties either uninterested in the debate, or averse to arguments (and a lot of people just don’t want the negativity in their space unless it’s their issue… “are you just looking for things to be pissed off about? why does everyone have to be a ‘bigot’? can’t we all just get along?”)

So… we should be mindful in the heat of rhetoric. Vocabulary matters. Temper speech. Use *exact* language.

Regan DuCasse

March 9th, 2013

The difference in intelligent comments is like night and day when we try to have a similar discussion to those who are crusading for discrimination. I’ll generalize some here, because the discussion threads are available or should be for someone with no passions for either side to see the difference for themselves.
As stated, the advocacy for equality will not diminish that of anyone else, their social or political value. Equal treatment under the law has actually never done that.
For either side.
We also, are not the ones AVOIDING any means of honesty, open and accessible opportunity for the truth to be revealed. We’re not just claiming it, but inviting a chance to prove it.
As Rob said though, doing so is spun as deception. Every move, every utterance, everything presented openly is called to be suspect.
With this kind of impassable rigidity, then that in and of itself shows unwillingness that’s not about being stalwart and courageous.
But actually cowardly, and reliant on nothing but claims, without any willingness in providing proof to them.

Regan DuCasse

March 9th, 2013

I think I’ll bring up a point of political contention where I have been accused of being a bigot without any proof that I’ve generalized or formed irrational ideas or bigoted, unfair opinions about this group without qualifying them.
How about illegal immigrants for example?
I have seen the reason for empathy and solidarity with illegal immigration from gay equality activists because gay people are impacted UNIQUELY in ways the whole are not.
Gay immigrants don’t have the federal means for being sponsored, having a child or being married in ways that would protect their right to be here.
There is also the matter of political asylum and abusing it, the way the birthright clause is abused.
These abuses are obvious, and fraud is a clear symptom of it.
Gay people will always be unique because this is a segment of the entire human population that usually has no legal protections anywhere.
I never have to mention a cultural, ethnic or religious group for someone to take my head off about it as a bigot.
When, in each and every discussion, I am pointing to the unethical and unfair ways in which illegal immigrants have received accommodation for much more than just illegal entrance or retention in this country.
Many other exponential laws are broken no CITIZEN can be allowed to break and who are duly held accountable, where an illegal immigrant can plead pity on their plight.
The resentment towards this is legitimate. The incursion of illegal immigrants with more political clout than citizens, even when that illegal immigration is a dangerous liability to the public, would otherwise be treasonous and unfair to legal immigrants and citizens.
There are more and more demands for benefits and accommodation for cheating and unethically obtained advantages, and it’s not because our immigration laws are unfair to the majority of immigrants.
It’s because our country would always have limits on how many people COULD be accommodated and assimilated. And if there are millions who don’t want to be legally accountable for disobeying as the rest of us must be, resenting it is not the definition of bigotry.
But clear evidence of who is allowed to break laws with impunity, and who isn’t.

Timothy Kincaid

March 9th, 2013


It’s a joy to read your thoughtful analysis.

But a warning – In a world in which fighting a Culture War is more important than being worthy of winning, those who delight in fighting an ‘enemy’ won’t much like you taking away one of their favorite weapons.

Rob Tisinai

March 9th, 2013

Everyone who opposes gay equality is a bigot but stating that is not in anyway saying there is no middle ground between perfection and damnation.

The message you intend by calling someone a bigot is not necessarily the message they will receive.

Priya Lynn

March 9th, 2013

I’m okay with that.

Rob Tisinai

March 9th, 2013

Much of my life, certainly when it comes to blogging and when it comes to my career, is about trying to make sure the message I intend is the message that’s received.


March 10th, 2013

It’s about precision in language. Calling someone a bigot does, in fact, short-circuit the discussion and hampers your own argument. If you want the right message to go out, lay it out for the audience: So-and-So said these things, which are not true, and tried to link this group to other, unpopular groups in spite of the evidence otherwise, and is making up wild, unfounded predictions on what will happen if (fill in preferred court decision/legislative action/referendum here) comes to pass.

Question everything — make them explain how it’s going to happen, make them come up with specific examples, demand that they back up their statements. And don’t let them change the subject.

In other words, let them hang themselves. And the audience will get the message, without the B-word ever making an appearance.


March 10th, 2013

With exceptions made for the craven and the wicked. Bigots do exist – the folks picketing funerals come to mind. People get that.

But there are those folks, and then there are our earnest opposition (the squeamish, those adverse to change, those who think “I got mine, screw you”)…

When we tar them all with the same brush, sensible people – the people we seek to influence say (rightly so) – “NO. Those two groups are not equivalent”. And then we look hypersensitive or worse. In the words of a very supportive relative who doesn’t breathe the issues “are you just looking for things to be pissed off about”.

Death by eye-ball rolling.


March 10th, 2013

Even if someone is a bigot of the box 10 variety, I’m not sure it’s useful to lob the term. As our civil rights advance, and advance they clearly do, box 10s and their near neighbours will increasingly be perceived as the bigots they are. Pointing it out becomes stating the obvious, redundant.

Even if correct, levelling the term bigot will sound ad hominem. Typically what we see is the, “I know you are but what am I” response. The debate goes off the point and you find yourself having to explain why you’re not a bigot for opposing bigotry.

People in boxes 3 & 4, whose opposition to gay rights amounts to disquiet over social change, find themselves thinking they’re called bigots by association and are likely to buy into box 10’s counter claim of bigotry in defence.

We are, as British MP, David Lammy, put it, on an organic journey from illegality to equality. I reckon we can point out that our opponents are hanging back with the legacy and social dysfunction of illegality without having to employ the ‘b’ word.


March 11th, 2013

Loved this. DEFINITELY up there on my list of exceptionally useful guides and tools (e.g., Bonewits “ABCDEF”).

“Death by eye-rolling?” How precious and twee.

For those who don’t like the boxes, nor “intemperate” language (mine HAS been tempered in fires I wouldn’t wish on anyone) and “our earnest opposition:” screw ’em and the bigoted horses they ride.

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