Definition of ‘bigot’

Frank asked:

How would a philosopher define ‘bigotry’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

That’s a good question, Frank. Everyone thinks they know a bigot when they see or hear one. The problem is that one person’s bigot is another person’s ‘true believer’.

I am going to make this personal, something I rarely do. My wife was June a devout traditionalist Catholic and had strong negative opinions about homosexuality. One day, I had the misfortune to walk in to a row between June and my sister’s lesbian girlfriend. I can’t actually remember the girlfriend’s name but let’s call her Sue. Sue was shouting, over and over, ‘Bigot! bigot! bigot!’.

I didn’t hesitate to come to my wife’s defence. I punched Sue in the face a couple of times and she stopped in sheer surprise. The punches weren’t that hard. My fist sunk in to her cheek. As I reflected afterwards, it felt a bit like slapping a supermarket chicken.

Afterwords, and in the light of further events, I concluded sadly that June was indeed a religious bigot, Big time. From then onward, I managed her condition by avoiding sensitive topics. But as they say in chess, ‘a threat is more powerful than its execution’. Time and again, I held back for fear of sparking a painful row.

Bigotry of all kinds is despicable. My view, which I argued for in my article ‘Philosophy, Ethics and Dialogue’ (Journal of Dialogue Studies 2014) is that there really isn’t any difference between a true believer and a bigot. They are one and the same.

Religious bigotry is one form of the vice and by far the easiest to call out. But — without naming names — there is also such a thing as political bigotry. Political bigots feel passionately about the cause they have espoused, to the extent that they are completely deaf to objections or opposing arguments. They are what J.S. Mill in his essay On Liberty 1859 considered the bane of social and political discourse.

It would be too easy to end there, however. Think about Germany in the years following Hitler’s rise to Chancellor in 1933. The only sane and justifiable response (as we would say) was heroic, self-sacrificing opposition — which is easy enough to say, harder to carry out in reality. Without the courage of conviction of those who oppose it, all manners of evil can prosper.

But when does passionate conviction in politics shade into bigotry? That is the question.

I propose the following simple test, of which J.S. Mill would have heartily approved. If you are passionately for Party X and against Party Y, then as a mental exercise play Devil’s Advocate. Make a determined and sincere attempt to defend Party Y against the objections you have raised. Having done that, you may well conclude that your original view is unchanged but at least you will have a better understanding of the opposition you are up against.

On the other hand, if you find the exercise absurd and impossible, then I’m afraid to say you are indeed a bigot.


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