Thursday, June 22, 2006

What Is a Bigot?

Recent events (including yesterday's post) have given me reason to investigate the question, "When can you legitimately call somebody a bigot?"

The basic answer is: "When it is true."

When is it true?

It is true when an individual takes a characteristic and applies it adversely to a group when it is unreasonable to believe that all members of the group have that characteristic.

A paradigm example of bigotry is found in applying the property of ‘criminal’ to those who are black. Another example involves applying the property ‘stupid’ to those who are blonde. We also see bigotry in those who apply the property ‘without morals’ to ‘atheists.’

Yesterday, I called Rush Limbaugh a bigot for claiming that all liberals cheered the murder of two American soldiers in Iraq. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any liberals cheering this brutal crime. Furthermore, what Limbaugh seems to have wanted to call ‘cheering’ was, in fact, an assertion that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld deserves some moral criticism for this outrage – criticism for putting the victims in harm’s way.

Conservatives are not the only ones prone to bigotry. In fact, the tendency is far too common everywhere. Any time somebody condemns “Republicans” or “conservatives” or “Christians” or “People who voted for Bush” by asserting that they all have a characteristic that they do not share in fact, that person shows himself to be a bigot.

[Note: Taner Edis had a statement on his post at The Secular Outpost that I was going to use as an example of liberal bigotry. However, he has since corrected it – which deserves a note of praise.]

A bigoted generalization does not necessarily have to say something bad about individuals in a group. It simply needs to be applied to them adversely. Saying that a person “has rhythm” is not, in itself, an insult or an accusation. It is, however, a sign of bigotry when it is said of a person merely because he is black.

Why Bigotry is Evil

Bearing False Witness

The first problem with bigotry is that the bigot's claims are false in many instances. That is to say, bigots “bear false witness” against their victims.

Here, I want to point out that there is a distinction between ‘lying’ and ‘bearing false witness,’ and that the second is still a serious moral crime.

To see the distinction, we can look at the difference between ‘murder’ and ‘killing an innocent person.’ Murder is understood as intentionally or knowingly killing an innocent person. However, it is also wrong to kill an innocent person through negligent or reckless actions. Negligent homicide is still considered wrong, and the accused cannot defend himself by claiming that he did not intend to kill his victim.

‘Bearing false witness’ consists not only of intentionally reporting as true something that one knows to be false (a.k.a., ‘lying’). It also includes recklessly or negligently promoting a false belief. In fact, the moral crime of negligence often takes the form of negligent belief. It can be found in the doctor who arrogantly presumed that his diagnosis must be accurate, the ship pilot who presumed that the channel was deep enough for his oil tanker, a rapist’s negligent belief that ‘there is no, no on your lips but yes, yes in your eyes, and a President’s negligent belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Negligent belief is a moral crime because negligent beliefs cause harm. Where a negligent belief can cause harm, individuals have an obligation to check and double-check their facts.

Bigots hold and promote beliefs that cause harm without checking their facts. Bigots are guilty of the moral crime of ‘bearing false witness.’ Rush Limbaugh was guilty of ‘bearing false witness’ when he reported that liberals are cheering the murder of those soldiers in Iraq.

Accusing the Innocent

The second moral crime inherent in bigotry is that of accusing people of crimes for which they are innocent. Each of us has a right to be assumed innocent unless proven guilty.

If it is permissible to assume guilt, then none of us is safe. I can assume that everyone who reads this post is child rapists, and not a one of you can prove that you are not. The only defense that any of us ever have against the accusation that we have committed a crime is that the accuser cannot provide any evidence that we are guilty. We can never prove our innocence.

So, reasonable people adopt and defend the moral principle that a person is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Along with this, reasonable people recognize that bigotry is a form of injustice. There is no clearer measure of injustice than to condemn and/or punish a person for a crime that he did not commit. By definition, the bigot condemns (at the very least) people for wrongs that they did not commit. Rush Limbaugh was accusing his victims (liberals) of crimes (cheering the murder of soldiers in Iraq) they did not commit.

Anybody who loves justice must certainly hate the bigot; and anybody who cheers bigots clearly must have little or no interest in justice.

Summary

Truth and justice. The essence of bigotry is that it is found in those who are the enemy of truth and justice; who are quite comfortable living a life of somebody who 'bears false witness' and promotes injustice.

Caution

To avoid the moral crime of bigotry, a person has to follow these two rules:

(1) Make your accusations of specific individuals (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter), and not against groups. Any statement that says that "Christians" or "Liberals" or "Republicans" or "Democrats" and the like all share some despicable characteristic are examples of bigotry in action. They are signs of a person who cares more about hate than he does about truth and justice.

(2) Where you can provide proof that a person has committed a moral act worthy of condemnation, you can draw two legitimate conclusions.

(a) Anybody who performs a similar act is similarly guilty.

(b) Those who support or cheer the person who performed the act wear the moral taint of those they cheer or support.

Before I close, I want to draw particular attention to item (2b). We should recognize that bigots and hate-mongers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter would have been nothing if not for those who supported and promoted their actions. It is reasonable to believe that society, by rewarding them for their moral lapses, encouraged them to become more and more morally depraved over time.

In other words, Limbaugh and Colter are symptoms of a corrupt society that feeds and nurtures hate and bigotry. Certainly, Limbaugh and Colter are to be condemned for their moral failings; they cannot get off simply by saying, “It’s not my fault; they did this to me!” However, it is a mistake to only condemn Limbaugh and Colter, when their fans at least as guilty as they are.

So, when making an accusation that an individual is a bigot, I would like to make sure that you include a harsh statement for those who make bigotry profitable. As I wrote yesterday, just as those who would cheer the murder of American soldiers in Iraq wear some of the moral taint for that murder, those who make bigotry and hate-mongering profitable in this country wear the moral taint of a bigoted hate-monger themselves. They certainly are doing nothing to make our society better than it would otherwise have been.

9 comments:

Austin Cline said...

It is true when an individual takes a characteristic and applies it adversely to a group when it is unreasonable to believe that all members of the group have that characteristic.

Technically, nearly every generalization about a group would probably qualify as bigotry since just about every generalization is false. But surely it's not right to say that we can't use generalizations. So when are generalizations legitimate and when are they not?

"Republicans support lower taxes..." is a generalization, but it's not true that every Republican supports lower taxes, so is this really bigotry?

"Conservative pundits say..." is a generalization, but it's not true that every conservative pundit says whatever follows, so is this really bigotry?

Then there is the question of when it's permissible to hold someone responsible for the actions, attitudes, and policies of a larger group to which they belong. It's tough to hold someone responsible for the actions of other members of their race, but no one chooses their race. People can, however, be held personally responsible for choosing to identify with a religion, a church, a political party, a social organization, etc. Almost no one adheres to every single policy or belief of those groups, but when does it start being legitimate to hold people responsible (culpable?) for what those groups do?

I may not be personally racist, but can't I be held responsible when my country club doesn’t admit Hispanics as members?

I may not be personally in favor of policies that undermine civil liberties, but can't I be held responsible when my political parties is in favor of such policies?

I may not be anti-gay, but can't I be held responsible when my church or religion is anti-gay?

Now, I obviously don't mean that I should be held *wholly* responsible. I can't bear the weight of the sins of the world. At the same time, though, I think that it is illegitimate for me to say "well, I don't personally accept those beliefs and policies, so it's bigoted of you to generalize in a way that would include me in your criticism of this group."

I'd say that when a person voluntarily adopts a label, voluntarily associates with a movement, and voluntarily joins a group, then they also choose to accept some of the responsibility of what that group or movement does - for better and for ill. You have to take the good with the bad.

Therefore, it seems to me that there must be a category of generalization which, while not technically valid for each individual case, is still legitimate and therefore not an example of bigotry. That goes for both positive and negative generalizations.

Austin Cline said...

I just want to add: I don't mean that one bears responsibility for each act of each other member of a group. One might have a responsibility for speaking out against some such individual actions. I'm speaking about official actions taken by the group as a whole or by leaders on behalf of the group/movement...

Alonzo Fyfe said...

On the first issue, I would recommend a statement such as "republicans tend to support tax cuts" as being more honest and accurate. Yet, even without this, I would suggest that your original statement would not be bigoted because it is not an accusation or adverse to those the claim targets.

As for holding people responsible for the attitudes of a group that one joins . . . Joining is an intentional act that justified us in asking whether a person with good desires would perform that act. However, being black, blonde, or even christian, atheist, liberal, or conservative are not things one joins, but categories that one is assigned to. I am assigned to the category "atheist" because I believe that no god exists. Even if every other atheist is a Marxist, and I was the only Randian Objectivist, I could not prevent being put in this category. I am not responsible for the choices of others in that category.

If we are actually talking about an act of joining, our moral assessment follows the same model as other actions. We look at whether a person with good desires would perform the action. This means looking at whether the action of joining is one that would create states that would thwart the desires of the person with good desires. If it would, then we can condemn the agent for the act of joining just as, under other circumstances, we can condemn him for the act of robbing a bank or raping an ex girlfriend.

Austin Cline said...

I'm having trouble responding coherently and succinctly because I don't believe you answered by question: when are generalizations legitimate and when are they not?

Bigotry is an adverse generalization. I contend that such generalizations can be legitimate — but when?


On the first issue, I would recommend a statement such as "republicans tend to support tax cuts" as being more honest and accurate. Yet, even without this, I would suggest that your original statement would not be bigoted because it is not an accusation or adverse to those the claim targets.

It's necessary for "bigotry" to say something bad about others, and at least by implication something good about yourself, otherwise we move too far from the original meaning of the word. I picked the above example (which may be adverse, depending upon perspective and circumstances) because I think it highlights a problem with what you are saying: you criticize bigotry in part for "bearing false witness," but that's no less true of positive generalizations then negative ones. Positive generalizations may not "accuse the innocent," but that shouldn't entirely let them off the hook, should it?



Joining is an intentional act that justified us in asking whether a person with good desires would perform that act. ... If we are actually talking about an act of joining, our moral assessment follows the same model as other actions. We look at whether a person with good desires would perform the action. This means looking at whether the action of joining is one that would create states that would thwart the desires of the person with good desires. If it would, then we can condemn the agent for the act of joining just as, under other circumstances, we can condemn him for the act of robbing a bank or raping an ex girlfriend.

First many choices of joining aren't so obviously bad as robbing a bank. I can think of many criticisms to be made of joining the Republican Party, all based upon recent platforms and policies of the GOP rather than simply their conservative politics, but I can't describe the act as so unambiguously bad like robbing a bank. So, would a person with good desires perform that act? Yes, if they for example believe in conservatism but also hope to change the GOP from the inside in order to undermine many bad things the party has been doing.

Second, we have to take into account the fact that we are usually dealing with people who aren't joining a group after learning about something awful that this group has done, but instead people who have long been members and are now faced bad actions which they aren't sure what to do about. Thus we are assessing them based on whether they remain members and/or whether they work to change the group, not on whether they join.

Third, the examples you cite completely avoid the larger issue I raised: what sort of responsibility can an individual member of a group bear for the ill behavior of the group as a whole and/or the group's leaders? In some cases the answer is "none," as with for example racial groups. With voluntary associations, however, I think that we can and should assign responsibility. If that's the case, however, then negative generalizations are warranted.

If the GOP started to argue for putting Muslims in internment camps, to what degree would negative generalizations about Republicans be warranted? Very warranted, I believe — anyone who chooses to remain associated with the GOP under such circumstances must bear responsibility for what is done in their name, just as we all bear some responsibility for what the American government does in our name.

So here is a case where I believe I could make adverse generalizations about Republicans even though I'm sure that some Republicans disagree with what the GOP leadership is doing. Their personal positions, I would argue, don't matter as much as their public association with the group. I don't think that I would be guilty of bigotry as you describe it, despite the fact that I'd be making statements that aren't technically true of every individual member of the category "Republican."



However, being black, blonde, or even christian, atheist, liberal, or conservative are not things one joins, but categories that one is assigned to.

I'm not sure that all of them are equivalent. Being black is something that a person doesn't have much choice in. Being blonde is — there are far more "blonds" in society than should be given the natural dispersion of the necessary genes. More importantly to both, though, is the fact that neither carries with them anything that would justify positive or negative judgments.

Being an atheist or theist are categories which a person can't voluntarily adopt or shed, but being liberal or conservative are categories based upon any number of voluntary choices. Are they categories which really cannot justify judgments of any sort? More importantly, there is a spectrum involved here that doesn't exist with a/theism, such that a person can some measure of liberty to decide if they identify more with conservatism or with liberalism.

A person can adhere to many "liberal" positions, many other "conservative" positions, but ultimately choose identify with "conservatism" for pragmatic or philosophical reasons. Andrew Sullivan holds many positions which are more characteristic of liberals, but others which are more characteristic of conservatives. Ultimately, he chooses to identify as a conservative.

To summarize: I don't think that every adverse generalization, including those which we know must not be true of every individual member of a group, is necessarily a form of bigotry and necessarily immoral. I think that there are times where we can adversely generalize about a group where there is at least some level of voluntary association/ identification, where there are characteristics justifying positive or negative judgments, and where individuals have the option of continuing to associate or not.

I just think that the issue is more complicated than what you wrote.

Austin Cline said...

I didn't bring this up because I figured that my comment would be cut short anyway. So...

Even if every other atheist is a Marxist, and I was the only Randian Objectivist, I could not prevent being put in this category. I am not responsible for the choices of others in that category.

Let's change this to make the issue much starker and more serious:

Even if every other atheist is a Holocaust Denier, and I was the only Holocaust Believer, I could not prevent being put in this category. I am not responsible for the choices of others in that category.

At the same time, though, if you never spoke out against Holocaust Denial, then you could legitimately be associated with that position. Simply being non-Denier wouldn't be sufficient to escape association and condemnation. Your silence communicates acceptance, if not quite active support. Your personal position of being a non-Denier is less important than your failure to publicly disassociate yourself from Denial. You may not have a choice about being an atheist, any you may not be personally responsible for other atheists' Holocaust Denial, but you do have a choice about what you (do or do not) say about Holocaust Denial.

I do not think that a person who adversely generalizes about atheists, in such a context, is a bigot.

If this can be true in cases where there is no voluntary association, then surely it can be true in cases where voluntary association is an issue.

Chris said...

Austin: I think you are underestimating the importance of quantifiers.

1) Republicans support tax cuts.

2) Most Republicans support tax cuts.

The difference between these two statements is obvious. If you believed that supporting tax cuts is evil (because, for example, it is fiscally irresponsible), then the first statement would be bigoted: it fails to address the existence of innocent Republicans. The second statement is not. Some people may misinterpret and misapply it in bigoted ways, but it is that misinterpretation, and not the correctly qualified statement, that is at fault in that instance.

In general, when dealing with a very large set, you should assume that exceptions do exist, unless you have sufficiently strong reason to believe that they don't. In a sufficiently small set (e.g. Republican senators instead of all Republicans), it's possible to verify that *all* Republican senators support X, in which case you are quite justified in saying so. Otherwise, you should not claim more certainty than you actually have.

3) The official platform of the Republican Party is in favor of tax cuts.

This statement is not bigoted, if it is true. It's obvious to any thinking person that not all Republicans support *every* plank in the party platform. Nevertheless, if the official party position is such and such, then it's not dishonest to say that that's what it is. Many people will assume that any given Republican supports any given plank of the platform until they hear evidence to the contrary, and I don't think this line of thinking is unreasonable, as long as you remember that the inference is tentative. But if they refuse to accept the evidence to the contrary because "You're a Republican, you *must* be in favor of tax cuts, it says so right in the platform; so if you say you're not in favor of tax cuts you must be lying", then *that* is bigoted thinking. The person's own statement should take precedence over this kind of application of a generalization, and strong specific evidence that they actually are lying should be required before concluding that they are lying about their own beliefs.


Similarly, in your holocaust denial example, "Atheists are holocaust deniers" would be bigoted (because unqualified, it is equivalent to "All atheists are holocaust deniers", which is false), while "Many atheists are holocaust deniers" would not be. "Alonzo is a holocaust denier, because he is an atheist" would be an example of invalid logic - it incorrectly attempts to apply a statistical fact to a particular case to produce a definite result. That doesn't work - you can only get tentative results that way, at most.


So, in short, generalizations are acceptable when they are adequately qualified to allow for the existence of whatever exceptions actually exist. And reasoning based on generalizations is acceptable when it appropriately acknowledges the existence of those exceptions and that any particular subject of discussion might be one of them, unless there is clear evidence that he/she isn't.


Joining, I think, is a sufficiently complex issue to deserve a separate discussion.

Hume's Ghost said...

I don't even mind generalizing that much. The true mark of a bigot, to me, is someone unwilling to judge an individual as an individual, who fails or is unwilling to make a distinction between an individual and a group/category. That drives me crazy.

Hume's Ghost said...

NOt to say generalizing can't be bad, though.

Austin Cline said...

The difference between these two statements is obvious. ... In general, when dealing with a very large set, you should assume that exceptions do exist, unless you have sufficiently strong reason to believe that they don't.

Yes, the difference is obvious and, yes, in any large set there will be exceptions. However, when discussing issues like those here, there will always be exceptions of some sort. Does this mean we must qualify every statement in order to avoid charges of bigotry?

No, I don't think so. Almost no generalization is every completely true, except those true by definition. Human language and thinking works by generalizations, though, and I don't think that every blog post has to be written according to the most exacting standards of a philosophy paper. It's a good idea to qualify one's claims, and you'll have trouble finding cases in my own writing where I don't qualify things. However, I don't believe that it's as necessary as often as I do it. I think that I qualify more than I really should.

More importantly, however, I am coming to the belief that one must accept personal responsibility for the actions, beliefs, and policies of whatever group one voluntarily joins. I believe that refusal to take personal responsibility for the actions of one's groups is one of the causes of society's problems - no one is responsible for the problems, so no one is responsible for fixing things. I don't believe that this should be allowed, but constant qualifications in our language makes it easier for people to get away with it.

Unfortunately, you chose not to address this.

...while "Many atheists are holocaust deniers" would not be....

If it's not true, why isn't it bigoted? Since when is "bigoted" only about false generalizations?

Joining, I think, is a sufficiently complex issue to deserve a separate discussion.

Yes, it's complex, but I think that since joining is a necessary precondition to something like being a Republican or Democrat, that must be part of this discussion. Your post does not address the question of what sort of responsibility one must bear when joining a group and thus whether a generalization can fairly be applied to someone on the basis of their voluntary membership in a group, even it doesn't technically apply to them personally.

That was my primary point. If you are going to say that my primary point should be part of a separate discussion, you're basically just saying that you aren't going to deal with what I'm trying to get at: we can justifiably make unqualified generalizations about "Republican" and "Democrat" which we can't make about "tall" and "theist." Tall people can't be held responsible for what tall people do, because that's not something which one has any choice in; Democrats, however, can be held responsible for what the party, party leaders, prominent party voices, etc. do because being a Democrat is something they do have a choice in.

As Democrats, they not only have a choice in party membership, but they have a choice when it comes to what "being a Democrat" is all about — it is their actions which helps define what "being a Democrat" is. If they are quiet in the face of awful actions by Democratic leaders or leading voices, then "being a Democrat" is defined by acquiescence towards such awful things. If they are loudly opposed, then "being a Democrat" may be defined as being against such awful things.

We are responsible for not just what we do, but what is done in our names. If we are Democrats, we are responsible for what the Democratic Party does. If we are Republicans, we are responsible for what the Republican Party does. If we are Americans, we are responsible for what our democratically elected leaders do in our name — even if we didn't vote for those currently in power. We are responsible what is; all that remains is to take responsibility for what will be. If we refuse to accept the former, we'll never be able to do the latter. As complex as the issue is, it comes down to something that simple.