Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Defining bigotry

Bigotry is the unilateral denial of moral protections to a category of people: unilateral because it does not flow from any specific acts by them transgressing against other people’s moral protections.

Since it is about denying moral protections to people who have not individually transgressed against the moral protections of others, the net effect of acting on bigotry is to decrease the ambit of moral constraint and therefore increase the level of immoral behaviour. Since it is about denying people moral protection, bigotry is, in fact, a moral claim: a claim about the ambit of moral constraints, about the status of people’s membership in the moral community.

So, bigotry is a way of claiming to defend morality while acting to undermine it by narrowing and/or lessening membership of the moral community. Bigots always claim to be defending moral decency, doing so by identifying a group who are outside (in whole or in part) its protections due to some flaw in them—thereby making them a threat to moral decency—not in the framing that excludes or otherwise diminishes them.

The more such framing is contested, and the less it is enforced, the more bigotry diminishes. The more uncontested the framing is, and the more it is enforced, the greater the level of bigotry.

This is why bigots often attempt to drive excluded group or groups out of the space of public debate: if they are allowed to present themselves as “just folk” then the moral claims of exclusion are likely to decay. The greater the sanctions imposed against such action in the public space, the easier it is to maintain a structure of exclusion. The more such sanctions decay, the harder it is to do so.

Since the denial of moral protection is unilateral, in that it is not based on specific transgressions against the moral protections of others, it has to be justified. In particular, the excluded have to categorised as some sort of threat: a threat of moral importance, even to morality itself. The smaller the minority involved, the more this has to be done, otherwise it is just a large minority monstrously bullying a small and vulnerable minority. Typically, they are held to be a profoundly corrupting influence in some way: that they will, if not excluded and repressed, act to undermine some basic structure or structures of society. Or that what they do or are is offensive, or otherwise malignly contradictory, to some basic principle or authority.

There will be thus the notion that they are, in some sort of way, a moral contagion: whether by converting others, by infecting their moral sense or by an enhanced propensity to immoral behaviour in general. That the flaw in them that justifies their exclusion will manifest in more pervasive moral flaws: even in a complete rejection of moral constraints.

They are thus turned into a threat to moral decency, which makes their exclusion not unilateral after all, but a defence of moral decency.

Any of these attitudes can be internalised. When Bishop Desmond Tutu was asked what was the worst thing about apartheid, he replied “the way it makes you doubt that you are a child of God”.

But, regardless of whether it is internalised by the object of bigotry, full bigotry leaves its object no escape while one remains in that category. Everything they do and say is tainted, without standing or, at least, irredeemably lesser. They are not permitted to escape their framing: all the problems are in them and what they do, not in how things are framed.

Which is at the heart of bigotry’s evil: it undermines or destroys the possibility of moral conversation and common moral restraint. For such conversation presupposes sharing some common moral plane when, to the bigot, equality itself is an insult. You do not understand the logic of bigotry unless you understand the reality of the insult of equality. The more committed to the bigotry, the more matters become subordinated to hate and exclusion and to rage at anything that undermines the notion that equality is an insult, that you do share a common humanity. Bigotry uses the language of morality to profoundly subvert the very structure and function of morality.


  1. Sorry Lorenzo, I don't buy this definition of bigotry. To me, bigotry is far more banal. A bigot is just someone who knows they are right, and no amount of evidence or reason to the contrary will persuade them otherwise. Thus, it is quite wrong to describe Pauline Hanson as a "bigot" as her views on Asians, for example, have changed as she has learnt more.

    To me bigotry is a bit like conservatism. It is more a temperament.

  2. Know they are right about what?

  3. Peter: that is a related notion of bigotry. Related, because one of features of bigotry in the misoygnist/racist/Jew-hatred/queer-hatred sense I mean here is that there is nothing that the objects of bigotry can do to escape the framing from within the framing. It is only when the framing begins to decay that attitudes shift. Alas, things which undermine the framing can generate particularly intense hostile reactions precisely because of the cognitive dissonance they set up.