A really good couple of posts have been going up at the excellent Crooked Timber blog on the issue of tolerance and bigotry. They make some really interesting points about the rhetorical (and, amazingly, legal) jedi mind trick currently being employed by the conservative movement: that bigots are entitled to protection and that they and their bigotry against, say, gays or ethnic minorities, deserve a certain measure of protection and tolerance.
Here are the posts:
Bigotry derived from religious principles is still bigotry. Whether the people who implemented Bob Jones University’s notorious ban on inter-racial dating considered themselves to be actively biased against black people, or simply enforcing what they understood to be Biblical rules against miscegenation is an interesting theoretical question. You can perhaps make a good argument that bigotry-rooted-in-direct-bias is more obnoxious than bigotry-rooted-in-adherence-to-perceived-religious-and-social-mandates. Maybe the people enforcing the rules sincerely believed that they loved black people. It’s perfectly possible that some of their best friends were black. But it seems pretty hard to make a good case that the latter form of discrimination is not a form of bigotry. And if Friedersdorf wants to defend his sincerely-religiously-against-gay-marriage people as not being bigots, he has to defend the sincerely-religiously-against-racial-miscegenation people too. They fit exactly into Friedersdorf’s proposed intellectual category.
Then, John Holbo, in a really long post, further unpacked the argument about tolerance. The key argument is really just making sure that people understood just what John Stuart Mill meant, back in the 1800s:
Not all minorities are powerless or persecuted. (The 1%, anyone?) It’s understandable why social conservatives should experience relative erosion of a former position of great social and cultural dominance as a humiliating reversal of fortunes – as moral persecution. It’s psychologically inevitable that they will feel like miserable underdogs, and it’s rhetorically advantageous for them to pose as such. So here we are. But sensible people should be able to see what’s really going on. Let’s just take up the gay marriage issue. Sometimes liberals say: ‘what’s the big deal if two guys who love each other get married? It’s not like they are hurting you.’ But if you are, say, Maggie Gallagher, that obviously not true in the least. If it’s not a big deal for two guys to get married, then Maggie Gallagher is a person who has devoted her adult life to trying to inflict senseless harm on innocent people. By not hurting other people, those two gay-married guys are, in effect, turning her from a superior sort of person (in her own eyes) to an inferior sort of person (in everyone else’s). The less they hurt other people, the more they hurt her. She doesn’t want to be regarded as a bigot. Who does? All the same, liberal tolerance and freedom of religion are not ‘get out of having been a bigot’ cards you can play at any time. She can go right on believing that same-sex marriage is bad bad bad. What’s bothering her is not that someone is trying to tell her what she can or cannot believe or say. What bothers her is that more and more people think what she thinks is horrible and that, therefore, no one should think it. As is their right. Concluding that ‘no one should think this, because it’s wrong and bad’ is not, as Damon frequently suggests, a violation of liberal tolerance. Drawing that conclusion is not, per se, a coercive act. No more so than saying ‘2 + 2 is not 5’. Indeed, if you were to ask J. S. Mill what he thinks is the relationship between true liberal tolerance and claims of the form ‘x is wrong because y, so nobody should think x’, he would say that the point of toleration is always to allow people to make such claims.
Farrell, in the first post, has a delightful example from a recent Irish debate about the right to call your opponents homophobic when they are being “reasoned” and “principled” in their religiously motivated bigotry. There, a drag artist caused a lot of trouble by calling her/his (pronoun preference not known to me) opponents “homophobic”. I think that part of the debate is particularly interesting. The video here is the part of the debate that everyone has seen by now:
While I agree that obviously ms. Bliss is in the right here — the opposition to gays being treated equally is obviously motivated by homophobia, fear, bigotry or outright hatred — I wonder if her rhetorical move is the right one. The satisfaction in naming people for what they are is tempting, but I tend to avoid it, in favour of focusing on what they are doing, but doing it in such a way that the audience can only reasonably make the connection that they are being bigoted. If I pull out the word “racist” or “homophobic” at all, it is as an adjective not to describe them — my opponents personally — but to describe their desired public policies and ethical choices. It’s much easier to point out bigotry in action than in thought and in the heart. And I find that in the long run, doing that is a much more productive rhetorical strategy. Nobody has said this better than mr. Smooth of the Ill Doctrine video blog: