‘We are lawyers, words are our tools’ was one of my pupil-master’s favourite lines, and if anything, lawyering has made me even more careful with how I speak and write than literature and publishing ever did. Yes, I know, the way lawyers parse a statute or a case can seem like mindless pettifogging. There are times when–as someone who has spent time on the publisher’s side of the divide–I think that the lawyers are wrong and the novelists and essayists are right, and that law really, really needs to clear up its language (if not clean it up, but we won’t go there…).
In my experience, one of the fastest ways to kill a word or phrase–no matter how apt or witty–is to overuse it, especially in contexts where it is not on point. Over time, overuse undermines uses that are apt and accurate, until the word or phrase is emptied of meaning. George Orwell observed this phenomenon with much public debate and commentary in his famous essay, ‘Politics and the English Language‘.
Which is why I am conflicted about leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland Cardinal Keith O’Brien being named ‘Bigot of the Year’ by gay rights charity Stonewall (BBC):
Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s stance on gay marriage was singled out at Stonewall’s annual awards in London.
Sponsors Barclays and Coutts have said they will axe their funding if the category is not dropped next year.
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson won Politician of the Year, but was booed for also criticising the bigot award.
Ms Davidson, who is gay, has been among those giving cross-party support to a same-sex marriage bill which is being brought forward by the Scottish government, while Cardinal O’Brien has been a strong critic of the plans.
On one level, I suspect that the characterisation of Cardinal O’Brien is accurate: he probably is a bigot. Few of the articles about the blow up have quoted his most incendiary comments, which he wrote earlier this year. I include them for accuracy’s sake:
Disingenuously, the Government has suggested that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be compulsory and churches could choose to opt out. This is staggeringly arrogant.
No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.
Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”.
Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?
Apart from being immensely stupid (there was, unfortunately, no ‘dummy’ award going), this is fairly standard bigotry (the whole article is frankly awful). Equating one’s opponents with slaveholders and accusing the British state, the first in the world to abolish slavery, of endorsing something akin to slavery is pretty toxic. Everyone from David Cameron on down weighed in on that one. Ah, Cardinal O’Brien, don’t go there, not in this country, not since 1807.
So, if Cardinal O’Brien really is a bigot, what’s my problem with the award? The tl;dr version? This kind of labelling is something that’s very, very difficult to get right.
Many of the people opposed to equal marriage are not bigots. Similarly, many of the people opposed to high levels of immigration are not racists. Many of the people who support strongly centralised state authority are neither fascists nor communists. Many of those opposed to abortion rights are not misogynists. Of course, opposition to immigration, abortion, equal marriage, or support for authoritarian governance can be a cover for all sorts of nasties, but it need not be. Each case must be assessed on the merits.
Nowhere has this become more obvious than in the careless use of the words ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’, closely followed by ‘anti-semite’. The graphic on the left is a staple of internet forums when someone wheels out the ‘racist’ allegation but misses the target. Andrew Brown describes the same process with the word ‘fascist’ in this piece for the Guardian:
But shame and stigma only work to weaken your enemy under a shared set of moral assumptions. If someone outside my moral universe calls me a liar, I feel rather cheered up. They don’t know what lying means. There’s a whole range of moral terms which have lost their force because they were applied too freely to people who did not share their underlying assumptions, and came to use them as a badge of pride.
The same thing may be happening to the word “bigot”. By branding all opponents of gay marriage “bigots”, Stonewall has gone too far. There is a perfectly reasonable case to be made against the measure, by people who are generally in favour of equality. On balance, and in general, I think it’s wrong. None the less, civil partnerships were invented in order to provide all of the practical benefits of marriage without the name. If that was a distinction worth preserving six years ago, it’s reasonable to ask what has changed since then. But by attacking the character of opponents rather than their arguments, Stonewall is preaching only to the converted. It really does matter to a civilised society that we treat arguments on their merits, and do not judge them according to their source.
It’s inconvenient that bad people can make good arguments. It carries the worrying implication that good people, such as we are, might sometimes make bad arguments, which is obviously absurd. It’s also a nuisance that when any question divides society there will be bad people alongside us whichever side we pick.
Bigotry exists, just as fascism does. But the only way the word can keep its force is if it’s used sparingly. If Stonewall is not careful, it will turn into a jokey badge of pride, as “fascist” did for a while. And then there won’t be a word to use any longer for the real thing.
‘Anti-semite’ has undegone a similar deterioration. Used too often against those critical of Israel or those who simply did not portray Jews in a narrowly-defined manner endorsed by community organisations, it is now routinely shrugged off by everyone from George Galloway to the Palestinian Authority to the European Parliament with a ‘well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?’
In other words, Stonewall may be right this time, but there is no guarantee that they will continue to be right in future years. Also, too, while Cardinal O’Brien may well be a bigot, it’s not his opposition to equal marriage that makes him a bigot. It’s his equation of gay rights with endorsing slavery, encouraging paedophilia, and taking us down the slippery slope to bestiality that are indicia of bigotry. This distinction perhaps accounts for growing skittishness on the part of corporate sponsors:
Christian groups are particularly upset about Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Britain’s most senior Catholic, being nominated for the prize for his opposition to gay marriage.
Now Barclays and the royal bankers Coutts have said they will withdraw their support unless the category is dropped.
Coutts, which has withdrawn its delegation from the awards on Thursday, said: “Coutts are sponsors only of Stonewall’s Writer of the Year Award and have in no way been involved in the judging or support of the Bigot of the Year category.
“We have advised Stonewall that we will be withdrawing our support of the awards unless they remove this category.”
Mark McLane, Managing Director and Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Barclays, said: “I have recently been made aware of the inclusion of a ‘Bigot of the Year’ category in the awards.
“Let me be absolutely clear that Barclays does not support that award category either financially, or in principle and have informed Stonewall that should they decide to continue with this category we will not support this event in the future.
“To label any individual so subjectively and pejoratively runs contrary to our view on fair treatment, and detracts from what should be a wholly positively focused event.”
To be fair, Barclays is probably having to reinforce its glass house with duct tape as we speak on the basis that it is deeply implicated in another–far worse–scandal of its own. *Cough* LIBOR *cough*. That said, I have no problem with private bodies ‘employing their capitals’ (to use Adam Smith’s lapidary phrase) as they wish, and if the banks desert Stonewall over its ‘Bigot of the Year’ prize, this is akin to the process whereby advertisers deserted Alan Jones in droves for similarly misjudging the public mood.
Of course, there are complexities in all this. It is possible to get away with saying any number of stunningly nasty things if only one is courteous, which has the unfortunate effect of confining freedom of speech to those who can make their points civilly. Saying that gays are ‘objectively disordered’ is far nastier than calling one a ‘poof’ or ‘faggot’, but the Catholic Church gets away with the former because most people need a dictionary to figure out what it means. The latter, by contrast (if combined with an assault or breach of the peace) will constitute an aggravation. With his slavery remarks, Cardinal O’Brien stepped outside the bounds of British civil discourse and managed to anger many people who, on many other issues, may even agree with him. Now Stonewall has done something similar.
Words are everyone’s tools. It pays to use them wisely.
UPDATE: Scotland’s First Minister (equivalent of Premier or State Governor for Australian and US readers respectively ) Alex Salmond has now weighed in:
According to the BBC, Mr Salmond said: “Stonewall were clearly wrong to describe Scotland’s cardinal in these terms, and in any case should reflect on whether pejorative titles like this do anything to enhance their cause.
“Personal insults are not conducive to a proper and dignified debate on the important issue of equality in Scotland.”
The SNP leader confirmed that public donations towards the charity would continue, amid calls by Scotland’s Catholic Church for it to stop.