Principled Disagreement or Bigotry? What is the Difference?

April 11, 2023

Do you think it is inappropriate for men to compete in women’s sports? Or do you think it is probably a bad idea to teach children divisive racial theories and race-based revisionist history before they even fully grasp our nation’s moral foundations? How about religious traditions? Should people be allowed to continue to live their lives according to their sincerely held religious beliefs? If you believe any of that, you might just be a bigot. Well according to many people these days anyway.

The B-word has become a common go-to label for those that wish to denounce and reject anyone that holds opinions contrary to their own (or gets in their way of achieving some goal). The temptation to throw it out to poison the well before a debate (or avoid one) is too strong for many to resist. The term is well-known and nasty enough to throw people off and upset them, but common enough for people to feel comfortable using it. It is broad enough to encompass a whole range of thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. Yet the term is specific enough for people to get a precise idea of the type of strawman the user of the word intends to erect in the minds of listeners to represent the beliefs of their opponent.

Chants of “Bigots go home” from counter-protesters at a drag queen story time protest in Royal Oak, MI

Of course, there are true bigots out there, and they come in all forms and hold opinions on every “side” of popular debates. Insofar as they pop up, they can rightfully be called out or (hopefully) corrected regarding whatever shortcomings in their understanding are revealed. But in general, the most controversial arguments we have in our popular discourse these days are not rooted in bigotry. They are rooted in fundamental differences in moral orientation, in differing ideological worldviews, and in competing practical proposals for solving our problems (especially concerning the use of government).

Let’s consider some definitions of the word “bigot” to get an understanding of the concept and reveal the necessary requirements that make the label apply to a given person.

  • Cambridge Dictionary offers two definitions for “bigot.” The first is, “a person who has strong, unreasonable beliefs and who does not like other people who have different beliefs or a different way of life.” The second is, “a person who has strong, unreasonable ideas, esp. about race or religion, and who thinks anyone who does not have the same beliefs is wrong.”
  • According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, a bigot is “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”
  • Collins Dictionary says a bigot is, 1. “a person who holds blindly and intolerantly to a particular creed, opinion, etc. 2. A narrow-minded, prejudiced person.”
  • American Heritage Dictionary has a slightly different definition, “One who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.”
  • And then there is with the following definition; “a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.”

We can see from these different definitions that there is some variation in the meaning and degree in which the important aspects of the concept are applied. All the definitions reflect the necessity of a person believing they are part of an “in-group” and other people being part of an “out- group;” even if the “in-group” is just the one person alone and the “out-group” is everyone else. Also necessary is the notion of “intolerance” of something by the person towards the “out-group.” But there must be more to the concept than this, right? If there wasn’t, the term would be useless since simply calling someone “intolerant” would be sufficient. “Intolerance” is also a limited term in itself, since most of us are intolerant of something. Even inherent in the concept of morality itself is a required level of intolerance for contradictory (immoral) behavior. Intolerance is usually associated with a negative belief, but not always. Likewise, being a part of definable groups opposed to other groups that have contrary beliefs of some sort is unavoidable, so while this is necessary for the concept, it is far from sufficient to define it.

What seems to differ and be up for debate amongst these definitions is the determination of “bigoted” belief and the nature and degree of the feeling the “bigoted” person feels towards others. Some of the definitions introduce the notion of “unreasonableness” as a requirement for bigoted beliefs, others do not. Some of the definitions introduce the notion of “dislike” or “hatred” of others by the bigot, while some definitions only require them to be “intolerant.”

I would argue that for a proper conception of “bigot” it is necessary to include some notion of “unreasonableness” or ignorance and a high degree of dislike/hatred for “the person” of those in the out-group. The definitions above that do not include this are lacking important aspects of the concept. “Bigot” is undeniably intended to be used as a slur. We must grasp the totality of the concept to judge whether any specific use of the term is proper or improper. Improper use of the term can be a slander; it is divisive, it does not foster constructive conversation or understanding, and it can stem from the same logical errors and commit the same fallacy as bigotry itself.

Popular sentiment on social media. Are all opinions you do not like bigotry though? That seems to be the question.

Judging “unreasonableness” has a subjective aspect to it, but “reason” is rooted in objectivity. We can use reason to determine certain logical truths and moral imperatives. Does the potential “bigot” have a logical argument? Does it address a specific topic, belief, action, or practice of those of the “out-group?” Is the debate of the nature where disagreement is warranted and inevitable? Concerning the “hatred or dislike” associated with the concept of bigotry, does the disagreement or “intolerance” between the “in-group” and “out-group” spill over into a denial of the humanity, equal worth/dignity, and/or mutual respect for the rights of others? We do not need to agree on the merits of any given argument but we should at least be able to determine whether or not it is a fair argument or one that depends on an ignorant belittling of the humanity of others.

We must look to determining the maxim of the act at issue or the essence of the debate at hand to separate out 1. legitimate logical disagreement, intolerance of perceived harmful behavior, and steadfast adherence to moral principles, from 2. ignorance, unreasonableness and hatred that belittles the humanity of others. Bigots engage in the latter, all manners of people necessarily engage in the former as part of our continuous effort to progress towards understanding and function harmoniously in cosmopolitan society.

Gender dysphoria? Opportunism? Mockery and exploitation of women? The internet is ablaze with debate over exactly who and what Dylan Mulvaney represents. Major brands choosing him as a spokesman has been viewed as an endorsement of the wider trans movement and all the controversial activities/policies that come with it.
All “cancelled” – If brands using caricatures & historical figures can be perceived as problematic due to association with harmful abstract ideas, surely brands using contemporary spokespeople that embody controversial real-life modern movements are fair game for criticism as well

Regarding the transgender issue and public discourse, there is the argument surrounding how to address biology and mental health – how much is objectively defined and how much is subjective, and what is the proper way to address it. The use of coercion by authorities to nudge compliance with debatable standards of care and professional expectations/etiquette (pronouns etc) is concerning; as is the use of bureaucracy (especially at the Federal level) to force compliance with certain favored policies. The freedom of conscience/First Amendment rights vs public accomodation/anti-discrimination debate and where to draw the line to protect competing interests impacts this issue. There is the argument over the sexual “grooming” of children which encompasses a wide range of factors and is a cultural war being waged on many different fronts. There is the parental rights argument in general and the issue of access to certain books and curriculum in publicly-funded schools. Opposition to public funding for elective sex change operations, surgeries, the application of hormone blockers for youth, and related arguments have legitimate merit. Public obscentity laws that apply to everyone being applied to male and female impersonators somehow became a perceived discrimination based on bigotry. The issue of people declaring themselves transgender and using the bathrooms and changing rooms of the opposite biological sex is a legitimate issue that may cause concern and violate important rights and societal standards as does the issue of males competing in female sports. These issues are based on distinctions with a difference, not simple bigotry. They fall within the realm of action, ideas, and cultural norms; they do not depend on a discounting of any immutable characteristics or the inalienable rights or equal worth of others. They are fair game for debate and opposition because the implications extend far beyond mere tolerance of adults acting in ways in which others may disagree.

Typical social media post conflating opposition to the Dylan Mulvaney endorsements with simple bigotry

In America, tolerance of different lifestyles is expected, but we must ensure efforts to promote tolerance do not turn into forced compliance that is itself intolerant. We must respect the fundamental rights of others and honor equal civil rights for all that are logically derived from them. But we must ensure that the quest for equal rights does not turn into a machine for the creation of false rights or special privileges for preferred groups that do not warrant such attention because they come at the expense of the rights of others and/or require an abuse of power to bring about.

Culturally, adults have a right to live as they please so long as they are not hurting anyone, however they do not have a right to automatically demand their preferred lifestyles and actions be accepted as normal, good, or equal to any other. That depends on a lot of factors. We live in a time of rapid change and instant spectacle that promotes and exploits the extreme among us. Backlash against some of this is inevitable. Especially when it involves children, threatens traditional structures, and is perceived as being unnaturally promoted by powerful interests driven towards selfish ends. What we need is understanding, true tolerance, and compromise. Assuming and calling people bigots and other names before the debate can even occur will never help anyone achieve it.

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