Yelling “bigot!” as a tool of bigotry

By Lorenzo

A recent study concluded that Party and ideological animus in the US was significantly stronger than (pdf) racial animus in the US.

To put that another way, opinion-bigotry is stronger than racial bigotry in the contemporary US.

This is not all that surprising. While bigotry can extend in any direction socially (upward, downwards, laterally), the most powerful bigotry is typically the bigotry of the most powerful. Particularly, those who dominate the commanding heights of ideas and opinion.

In the US (as in other Western countries) those commanding heights (media, academe, IT, entertainment) have become increasingly dominated by a fairly narrow range of opinion. Opinion that delights in seeing itself as the embodiment of morality–particularly of understandingcompassion and inclusion–and contrary views as being ignorant, exclusory and offensive: in other words, as deeply bigoted.

A key point to remember is that bigotry is everywhere and always a moral claim: it is a claim about the (lack) of moral standing for others. Far from moral fervour being an insulation against bigotry, it is often precisely moral concern that fuels bigotry.

By this understanding-compassionate-inclusive framing of themselves and the contrary ignorant-exclusory-offensive framing of those who disagree, the accusation of bigotry has become itself an instrument of bigotry. The expanding rhetoric of denunciation (racist!, misogynist!, xenophobe!, homophobe!, Islamophobe! etc) has been wielded as a weapon to separate the Virtuous from the Vicious. And to block public debate-as-conversation and replace it with abusive self-involved collective monologues.

In the name of understanding, compassion and inclusion, there has been an ever-expanding war against “hate speech”. A deeply hypocritical war at so many levels (and pernicious in so many ways), but none more so than that using the rhetoric of denunciation is, itself, clearly hate speech when it is wielded against those who are not in fact racists, or misogynist, etc. Whether because that is simply a false characterisation of people’s views or a false generalisation from the views of some to the views of a larger category of people.

Tied in with this has become the notion of privilege, particularly white privilege. A central claim of such Virtuous identity politics is that white people should think of themselves as primarily white people: specifically, as belonging to an identity that is both privileged and stained with past oppressions and present inequalities. Now, if one is one of the Virtuous, and keeps up with Virtue’s moving moral goal posts, latest language taboos and ritual obeisances, one can functionally evade the moral burden of one’s whiteness.

Those who fail to do all this, of course, have the entire privileged oppressor identity dropped on them.

Since this is very much a game for the educated middle class, members of the working class are not likely to jump through the various hoops, leaving them with the burden of identity as white privilege oppressors.

Oh look!, an excuse for the educated middle class to sneer at working class folk as vulgar moral barbarians, we’ve never seen that before. (Sarcasm and irony alert.) Hence the return of virtue signalling, which was so very powerful in the Victorian era; the contemporary version being used by much the same sort of folk against, well, much the same sort of folk: but with whiteness as moral negative rather than moral positive.

Which leaves the white working class with so much of the blame for, well, just about anything, but very little actual social power. (Which, of course, makes them such splendid targets for status-mongering contempt.)

So, we have the white working class as bigoted privileged oppressors yet have remarkably little say and who, moreover, at clearly not entitled to any say if it involves disagreeing with their Moral Betters.  Any doubt about that, and that those moral betters typically regard the white working class with deep contempt, has been stripped away by the Virtuous outrage over the win for Brexit in the UK Referendum–especially the demands that referendum result be immediately overturned. (Though the online petition calling for same had some prank element to it.)

The rhetoric of denunciation is very attractive because it broadcasts moral concern, moral superiority and moral contempt all in one go. It is also utterly destructive of any breadth in public debate and useful engagement with those outside the Virtuous magic circle. But self-righteous sanctimony has such obvious and enduring appeal, and is such a powerful mechanism for collective epistemic blockage (pdf), that it is not likely to go away any time soon.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. conrad
    Posted June 29, 2016 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    White people are privileged in the US in many ways, and I don’t see why it is unreasonable to say that. The actions people perform because of this is what matters. It is also certainly incorrect to believe this doesn’t matter in terms of social groupings and outcomes — kids from very young ages identify with social groups including racial ones, so it is very important. Whether these happen to be meaningful groups or not doesn’t stop people conceptually believing in them and their importance so it is no surprise debates get framed this way. Pointing this out isn’t bigoted, and nor is trying to ameliorate some of the consequences of it.

  2. Posted June 29, 2016 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    White people are privileged in the US in many ways

    According to the figures, so are East Asian people, South Asian people and, apparently, recent African migrants. If African-Americans behaved like, say, East Asians, most of the racial issues in the US would evaporate. (And yes, I know: complicated history and everything, but at some point African-Americans have to be examined as social actors, not mere social objects.)

    It is amazing how, on one hand, attempts to build genetic characterisations for racial groups get shot down by pointing out that individual variation hugely trumps group variation but apparently playing the same game “sociologically” is just fine.

    Telling folk with stagnant incomes, and troubled about prospects for their children, that they have “white privilege” is neither helpful nor has much empirical weight behind it.

    “White privilege” swamps a whole lot of social variation in a simplifying identity which then gets used in very unhelpful ways. Worse, it invites its use in extremely destructive ways. Inviting folk to think of themselves primarily as white people just opens the way to folk who are going to tack on “and you should be out and proud about that” — a much easier sell than “which gives you so many unfair advantages, makes you to blame for anything and everything that goes wrong for non-white people” (but, apparently, not for what goes well for them).

  3. conrad
    Posted June 29, 2016 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    When you think of privilege you are basically picking in- and out- groups. For example, I have some privilege over you by being heterosexual and you have some over me for being white. Simply because we are both successful enough (and other members of our groups are too) doesn’t mean we couldn’t have done better had we not existed in some out-group. So it is not just a matter of high- and low- SES

    For example, it seems reasonable to say that there really is a glass ceiling for certain groups in society for certain jobs. Thus, based on the underlying moral that all people should be treated fairly, the Victorian government recently addressed this by making the names of job applicants anonymous. This seems pretty reasonable, but without admitting privilege it would be pointless to do.

    I also don’t doubt the idea can be used and abused in any number of ways, incidentally, but this is where the problem lies and not that groups may be treated unfairly. Without addressing these issues, you get all the problems of social in and social out groups. With gender and sexuality, there is not much some of those groups can do, but the effects can be nastier with racial groups (sociologically defined).

  4. Posted July 6, 2016 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] There is a term for what you describe: it is called “advantage”. Using privilege carries with inevitably a lot of extremely unhelpful baggage.

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