Monday, June 27, 2016

Yelling "bigot!" as a tool of bigotry

A recent study concluded that Party and ideological animus in the US was significantly stronger than (pdf) racial animus in the US.

To put that another way, opinion-bigotry is stronger than racial bigotry in the contemporary US.

This is not all that surprising. While bigotry can extend in any direction socially (upward, downwards, laterally), the most powerful bigotry is typically the bigotry of the most powerful. Particularly, those who dominate the commanding heights of ideas and opinion.

In the US (as in other Western countries) those commanding heights (media, academe, IT, entertainment) have become increasingly dominated by a fairly narrow range of opinion. Opinion that delights in seeing itself as the embodiment of morality--particularly of understandingcompassion and inclusion--and contrary views as being ignorant, exclusory and offensive: in other words, as deeply bigoted.

A key point to remember is that bigotry is everywhere and always a moral claim: it is a claim about the (lack) of moral standing for others. Far from moral fervour being an insulation against bigotry, it is often precisely moral concern that fuels bigotry.

By this understanding-compassionate-inclusive framing of themselves and the contrary ignorant-exclusory-offensive framing of those who disagree, the accusation of bigotry has become itself an instrument of bigotry. The expanding rhetoric of denunciation (racist!, misogynist!, xenophobe!, homophobe!, Islamophobe! etc) has been wielded as a weapon to separate the Virtuous from the Vicious. And to block public debate-as-conversation and replace it with abusive self-involved collective monologues.

In the name of understanding, compassion and inclusion, there has been an ever-expanding war against "hate speech". A deeply hypocritical war at so many levels (and pernicious in so many ways), but none more so than that using the rhetoric of denunciation is, itself, clearly hate speech when it is wielded against those who are not in fact racists, or misogynist, etc. Whether because that is simply a false characterisation of people's views or a false generalisation from the views of some to the views of a larger category of people.

Tied in with this has become the notion of privilege, particularly white privilege. A central claim of such Virtuous identity politics is that white people should think of themselves as primarily white people: specifically, as belonging to an identity that is both privileged and stained with past oppressions and present inequalities. Now, if one is one of the Virtuous, and keeps up with Virtue's moving moral goal posts, latest language taboos and ritual obeisances, one can functionally evade the moral burden of one's whiteness.

Those who fail to do all this, of course, have the entire privileged oppressor identity dropped on them.

Since this is very much a game for the educated middle class, members of the working class are not likely to jump through the various hoops, leaving them with the burden of identity as white privilege oppressors.

Oh look!, an excuse for the educated middle class to sneer at working class folk as vulgar moral barbarians, we've never seen that before. (Sarcasm and irony alert.) Hence the return of virtue signalling, which was so very powerful in the Victorian era; the contemporary version being used by much the same sort of folk against, well, much the same sort of folk: but with whiteness as moral negative rather than moral positive.

Which leaves the white working class with so much of the blame for, well, just about anything, but very little actual social power. (Which, of course, makes them such splendid targets for status-mongering contempt.)

So, we have the white working class as bigoted privileged oppressors yet have remarkably little say and who, moreover, at clearly not entitled to any say if it involves disagreeing with their Moral Betters.  Any doubt about that, and that those moral betters typically regard the white working class with deep contempt, has been stripped away by the Virtuous outrage over the win for Brexit in the UK Referendum--especially the demands that referendum result be immediately overturned. (Though the online petition calling for same had some prank element to it.)

The rhetoric of denunciation is very attractive because it broadcasts moral concern, moral superiority and moral contempt all in one go. It is also utterly destructive of any breadth in public debate and useful engagement with those outside the Virtuous magic circle. But self-righteous sanctimony has such obvious and enduring appeal, and is such a powerful mechanism for collective epistemic blockage (pdf), that it is not likely to go away any time soon.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. Great post. It occurs to me that there is a parallel between the old standards of racial categorization, where a small amount of black ancestry could lead someone to be categorized as black, and hence to be marginalized, and today's rhetorical categorizations, where if some portion of the supporters for a policy or candidate have impure opinions about racial politics, that policy or candidate become the "racist" policy or candidate.

    1. Thanks and exactly. The underlying logic of bigotry is enduring.

  2. Great post Lorenzo, I really appreciated this.

    "especially the demands that referendum result be immediately overturned"

    This is an astute observation. I am shocked at seeing this reaction in my own circles, far more so than by the Brexit result. At the extreme there is a unsubtle hint towards disenfrachisement of the poor (the ignorant working classes) who have interfered in the smooth operation of things they don't understand. This coming people who think of themselves as progressive. I have never seen this before, I am not sure how to engage constructively.

    1. Thank you. What used to be modernist Left (pro-Enlightenment) has largely morphed into postmodern progressivism (post-Enlightenment) and lost any connection to working class aspirations. If you think in those terms, it is more understandable, if no more acceptable.

    2. Also, this piece on the contradiction of secular faith captures something important:

  3. Yes there is something in that, the paragraph on progressives seing their convictions as not merely partisan definitely strikes home.

    Sidenote, I'm amused that the "Next article" link at the very bottom of the page took me to...

    with such great clunkers as "Democracy, like most ideologies served undiluted, is toxic."

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