Monday, April 8, 2013

On Bigotry, Again

Although I did not get to the conversation in time to participate before the thread reached the 50-comment limit, I'd like to re-kindle the conversation about Barry's post, "Kind, smart, lovely people sometimes support bigoted public policy."

Whether the word "bigoted" is fair to apply to the viewpoint of opposition to same-sex marriage, whether the label is used to "deliberately" shut down conversation, and what the word "bigoted" even means are recurring issues in conversations at Family Scholars Blog.

Matthew Kaal, for instance, cited the Merriam-Webster definition of "bigot," which states:
"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 (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance"
This definition, as Victor noted, differs from Merriam-Webster's Thesaurus definition of "bigoted," which is:
  “unwilling to grant other people social rights or to accept other viewpoints."
The latter reflects, in my experience, the way many people commonly use the word "bigoted."

Even if we can't agree which definition or usage of the word bigoted is authoritative, I do think it's important for conversation participants to know how other participants are using a particular word. So, I can appreciate the value of that aspect of the conversation.

However, today, I'd like to highlight an aspect of Barry's post that I believe got a little lost in the conversation. Here, Teresa made a common accusation against those who use the word "bigoted":
"For me, my commenting as anti-ssm, seen as a bigoted position … although that’s not how I understood it at the time … was no longer acceptable at [Family Scholars Blog]. That’s how the common usage today of the word bigot/bigotry seems to work, in my opinion. It closes down discussion. It deliberately wants to do that, in my opinion." [ellipses in original]
Although this comment has some unclear passivity going on in it, Teresa suggests that those who use the words bigot or bigotry are "deliberately" trying to close down discussion. She further clarified her position:
 "How does it enhance discourse to throw labels at persons or positions which, by their current very nature, are meant to shut someone up? Either we argue an issue on merit/demerit, or we’re left flaming one another. I’m sure you agree, Barry. I’m, also, quite sure that you did not intend to close down discourse … but, that’s quite where we’re at today, unfortunately."
I'm only singling Teresa's comment here because she happened to be someone expressing it in this conversation. But, in my experience, it's a pretty common accusation, and one that's leveled against me at times at Family Scholars Blog, despite the general agreement that assuming bad faith is a violation of the site's civility policy.

To address this accusation, I think it's important to do a quick re-cap (my emphasis):
  • First, the title of Barry's post: "Kind, smart, lovely people sometimes support bigoted policy." 
  • Secondly, Barry's statement to Teresa, within his post, that even though she holds what he finds to be a bigoted position, he tells Teresa, "....that’s not to say that you’re a bigot, a hateful person, or acting out of spite or out of 'yuk.' From the little I’ve seen of you online, you seem like a lovely person, not at all hateful."
  • Third, he says, "...if you do have some bigoted attitudes that you need to fight against, that doesn’t make you a bad person. Nor do I think that makes you any different from me. Or from most people. Surely we all have some prejudices and bigotries inside that we have to work on."
  •  Fourth, he concedes, "History makes it clear that good, sincere people who are not hateful, can nonetheless hold bigoted positions."
  • Fifth, he says, "So when I say that being against legal SSM is a bigoted policy, that’s all I’m saying. I’m not saying that those who oppose SSM are bigots (no more so than anyone else, anyhow); I’m not denying that they are frequently smart, loving, and kind people."
  • And lastly, in the comments, he tells Teresa, "In the prior post, I specifically told you that you were extremely welcome to post on my thread, and that I was hoping you’d post more." 
So, I guess what I'm left wondering is what more do opponents of same-sex marriage want from people who genuinely and sincerely believe that opposition to same-sex marriage is a bigoted (or anti-gay, as I would argue) position to hold in order to convince you that we are not trying to "deliberately" "shut down discourse" about the issue?

I agree with Barry that "kind, smart, lovely people sometimes support bigoted policy." And, I also believe that other people who are more problematic, like members of the Westboro Baptist Church, can at times, be "kind, smart, lovely people" themselves.  It's not realistic or accurate, in my experience, to think that people are 100% monsters or 100% saints.

So, if we can go back to the definitional issue for a moment, I agree with Barry that the word "bigotry" includes connotations that acknowledge a broader, more systemic history of oppression that also-appropriate words like "unjust" do not include. To me, that is the importance of using the word bigotry - it is, in my opinion, simply a more accurate, specific representation of reality.  It contains history.

Yet, Barry's post was still tepid.

It made big concessions that acknowledged a nuanced reality that some people can be kind, loving people in some contexts while being problematic in others. It acknowledged that not all opponents of same-sex marriage are horrible monsters. It acknowledged that we all likely have work to do on being aware of our own biases and bigotries. Barry specifically welcome Teresa to continue commenting and expressed hope that she would "post more."

In light of these facts, I think it is incredibly unfair and unjustified to make the general, unqualified accusation that people who use the word bigot are "deliberately" trying to silence people or shut down conversation.  I  think that if Teresa, or others, choose to remove themselves from forums like Family Scholars Blog because some people believe they hold a bigoted position, that neither Barry, nor I, nor those who fairly use the word "bigotry" are to blame.

In these conversations at Family Scholars Blog, same-sex marriage is explicitly treated as a debatable conversation topic amongst people of varying views. People are going to experience discomfort at times. I certainly experience discomfort. Participating in such conversations does require somewhat of a capability to endure other people making judgments about us or are beliefs that we feel are not deserved. When it crosses the line, by the site's civility policy, is when people refuse to assume good faith and engage in personal attacks while having these conversations or in making these judgments.

In my opinion, the facts establish that Barry extended an assumption of good faith to Teresa, and many opponents of same-sex marriage, that Teresa and some folks are utterly unwilling so far to extend to him, me, and everyone who uses the word "bigotry."

[Cross-posted at Family Scholars Blog]

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