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.
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.
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.