‘Bigot of the Year!’

By skepticlawyer

‘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.

[It is probably worth noting that the ‘bigot’ award is the only ‘joke’ or ‘off’ category in an otherwise standard charity prize night; the full list of winners is here.]

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.


  1. Mindy
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    If that was a distinction worth preserving six years ago

    I don’t think that this was ever a distinction worth preserving so for me his argument falls down right there.

    So the Catholic Church can be as nasty as it likes and anyone pointing that out is told to stop it and be nice? Sounds like silencing tactics to me.

  2. Posted November 3, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    ‘The tl;dr version? ‘ Que?
    and if it’s a typo then pls delete this comment.

  3. Posted November 3, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    A good piece, just what I need on a Saturday morning, after writing my own post on ‘corruption’.

    On words, I feel much the same about the over-use of ‘denier’ in the context of ‘climate change’. Those who use it weaken their own case by attacking the person rather than the argument.

  4. marks
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Perhaps next year, Stonewall could have a “Camel through the eye of a needle” Award, and give it to Barclays?

    Or a “Whited Sepulchre” award for the good Cardinal?

    Or perhaps a “Suffer the little children” award for the various churches? (and yeah yeah, I do know the sense in which ‘suffer’ is used in the original).

    These proposals would certainly avoid the hackneyed terms like ‘bigot’, and if Barclays is no longer a sponsor, why not give it to them both barrels?

    Note: I was one of those unpleasant young lads who liked stomping on ants’ nests to see them pile out in anger.

  5. marks
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink


    I forgot the memorial “St Onan stained glass” award to Salmond.

  6. Posted November 3, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    The United Kingdom was not the first state in the world to abolish slavery.

    Arguing that some group not enjoy equal protection of the law is pretty hard to do without bigotry of some form.

  7. Yvonne
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    I have a problem with the argument ‘ Many of the people opposed to equal marriage are not bigots’, because what other argument is there except bigotry towards homosexual marriages? Other than that, name calling has become a lazy way of negating another viewpoint and permission not to contemplate another viewpoint or argument.

    Though, of course somebody in a such a public role as a Cardinal and who is not so much having a debate with someone, but decreeing a viewpoint deserves to be called out for whatever he or she is. The Cardinal not only makes dumb statements, he is most certainly a bigot.

  8. Holden Caulfield
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    This is an important piece, which people really need to speak up about when lazy – and often ignorant – accusations of “bigot”, “homophobe,” “misogynist” are screeched by people whose arguments are otherwise floundering.

    Many of the people opposed to equal marriage are not bigots

    Indeed, many of the people opposed to gay marriage are actual gays and lesbians themselves. But just on the word ‘bigot’. There’s two crucial features of the bigot: The first is the opposition to the perspective/viewpoint of another – “I want all Muslim immigration stopped”; “I will not bless my son/daughter’s marriage to a Catholic/Protestant”; or one person I know who “hates all people who went to private schools”. The second feature is that this different view be held ‘obstinately/intolerably’. This to me means that a bigot is somebody’s view is not open to modification no matter how much and how valid new information, experience, evidence the bigot receives.

    Even if the bigot learns that his putative Catholic son-in-law does not want to baptise the children, or send them to a catholic school, never eats fish on Fridays, the father will still not have the boyfriend in the house.

    As for Catholic priests who oppose gay marriage being ‘bigots’, do the Stonewall geniuses realise that Cardinal O’Brien also opposes marriage for Catholic priests to males OR females? Oppose marriage to divorced people? And so on.

    Unlike the Eddie Booth (Love Thy Neighbour), Bill Heffernan style bigot, it seems the likes of Cardinal O’Brien have actually heard, discussed, reflected on reasons he should change his position. He has listened, and rationally decided his original position was correct. It is not MY position, but it is as plain as day that O’Brien has gone through a significant process of intelligent reflection, and his conclusion is rational. It is a hell of a lot more than Pauline Hanson’s “I just don’t like it”.

    The recent “misogyny” dictionary change should have been protested against more loudly as well. The two main arguments were that dictionaries must change with usage. Supporters argued that ‘homophobia’ no longer means of ‘fear’ of homosexuals. Well actually ‘misogyny’ has been around non-stop with the same meaning for over 2,500 years. OTOH, homophobia is neologism only created in 1969, and even then only by a Frankenstein botching of Greek and Latin.

    The thing is there has not been any change over the past 10,20, or 30 years in what people mean when they accuse someone of ‘misogyny’. What has changed is that Germaine Greer’s “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them” So it should hardly surprise that 40 years later, nearly 2 generations of girls and women later will be talking about this hatred of women by men using the 2,500 year old word for it – misogyny. The modern use has not changed one bit over the past few decades. What word are they going to use for hatred of women now?

  9. marks
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    LE @ 8.

    That is reasonable, but ignores a substantial class of people who may agree that {Insert name of person} is a {insert epithet here} but are not particularly interested in proselytising.

    For example, someone may hold the view that it is a good idea for kids to learn asian languages, is prepared say why they think it is a good idea, and think/say that people who don’t want to learn are pretty stupid. However, that is as far as it goes, and such people may not be interested in whether or not they convert anyone to their way of thinking.

    For someone in that category, the fact that one expresses a view that may turn others off is of no consequence.

    In your example, I would imagine there are some who could not care less that Mr Salmond or Barclays are p1$$ed off, while being fully aware that their statements would do just that. ie the object of their disdain is so worthless in their view, that an attempt at conversion is futile, and those who do not see it so are similarly worthless. (Not the most pleasant of world views I suppose).

  10. John H.
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Isn’t the Bigot of the Year award an exercise in bigotry?

  11. kvd
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Interesting points which provoke the following musings:
    1) Where is it reported that Stonewall created this award as some sort of ” ‘joke’ or ‘off’ category”?
    2) What is the ‘mission statement’ for Barclays’ “Head of Global Diversity and Inclusion”?
    3) Was Orwell smiling or grinning when he wrote of the “sheer cloudy vagueness” of others’ writing?

  12. Mel
    Posted November 3, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    SL: “Many of the people opposed to equal marriage are not bigots.”

    So you are now arguing that many people who oppose miscegenation aren’t actually racists? Goodness gracious me, my dear.

  13. Posted November 3, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    LE, I also hate it when the right uses the terms ‘handbag hit squad’ and ‘Gillard knifing Kevin Rudd.’ The second just cos it’s a dumb cliche, the first for the dumb gender stereotype.

  14. Posted November 3, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    marks @4 and @5, those are all hilarious. And yes, Barclays probably couldn’t BUY enough duct tape in the whole of the UK thanks to their current situation…

  15. Peter Hindrup
    Posted November 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    ‘Anti-semite’ has undegone a similar deterioration.’

    Nobody has been able to explain to me how anybody who is a native speaker of any of the Semite languages, or anybody who supports the Palestinian cause, can be labelled anti-Semite!

    How is it that Jews, or Hebrew speaking Jews, one of lessor Semite languages can make the claim that ‘Anti-semitism’ applies to them, a minority group in the Semite speaking group?

    Yes, I know when and where the word originated, but that meaning is long obsolete.

  16. Posted November 5, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Nowadays, I prefer the term “Jew-hatred” precisely because of the sort of asinine pedantry you bring up.

    Given ‘Semite’ is a linguistic and ethnoracial term which posits a common identity that Arabs and Jews patently do not see themselves as having; saying or implying that Arabs cannot be “anti-Semitic” when the tropes of Jew-hatred are rife in Arab lands is the triumph of terminology over facts and common sense.

  17. paul walter
    Posted November 7, 2012 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    Agree Mark S.
    If you haven’t privacy in this over micromanaged life in the bedroom, where DO you have it.
    The world’s prigs should get out of other people’s way and find some thing more constructive to do with their time, enough real misery to ameliorate without artificially creating more

One Trackback

  1. […] families and social milieus, they amply fulfill the vulnerability criteria to be outcasts. Prelates such as Cardinal O’Brien, in their denunciations of giving queers equal protection of the law, are seeking to keep queers in […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *