Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan have both responded to my criticisms of their claim that Alec Baldwin is a “bigot” for, among other offenses, calling a photographer a “cocksucking fag.” In doing so, they resort to two tried-and-true tactics available to someone on the losing side of an argument: the first is to quietly abandon various critiqued assertions, and pretend that one never made them; the second is to redefine a key concept – entirely distorting it if necessary – such that one’s original assertions are legitimated (in this case, Coates offers a new definition for “bigotry” of which he could disabuse himself simply by picking up a dictionary).
The gist of Coates’ response is that the term “bigot” is neither as narrow nor as severe a term as I’ve made it out to be, and ought to be extended to such cases as the conflicted homophobia to which I contrasted it in my previous post. Along the way he makes or implies the following points more or less explicitly (I’ve reordered and condensed them for clarity):
- To call someone a “bigot” is not to make a global judgment of someone’s character: someone might be a bigot, yet overall a good person, or good in other roles or facets of their lives.
- The use of homophobic or racist slurs – in whatever context or state of mind – is a sure indication of bigotry.
- To say, as I did, that “homophobic feelings are no more of a choice than homosexuality itself” is “bizarre,” “terrible,” “false,” and “telling,” because homophobia is changeable but homosexuality is not. Case in point: Coates was once himself a homophobic bigot and prone to the use of homophobic slurs, but changed after more frequent contact with gay people – learning not to be repulsed by homosexuals or “gay sex.”
- Alec Baldwin is being defended only because he is “a rich, handsome, white guy from the liberal Mecca of the Upper West Side of New York.” The press would crucify a Sharpton or a Coates if they were caught using slurs – therefore it must be OK to crucify Baldwin.
- Minorities don’t even have the luxury of making global judgments of people’s characters, because they have to function in a world of bigots (who often include their loved ones). It is rarely the oppressed, but far more often the privileged, who make global judgments of character. Being discriminated against in fact makes one more prone to appreciate the complexity of other human beings. By implication, Coates cannot have made a global judgment of character about Alec Baldwin, and his arguments in this area are successfully inoculated against criticism: QED.
Sullivan makes a point very similar to (1) and (2): calling Baldwin “a bigot is not meant to be some cosmic, eternal or simple statement about the guy,” but merely an accurate description of someone who repeatedly uses homophobic threats and slurs toward others. And Partially Examined Life contributor Daniel Horne makes a related point in his comments on my original post, noting that bigotry constitutes a broad spectrum, and that “If you have conflicting and ambivalent feelings about a certain minority group, then you have bigotry issues, period.”
The problem with these responses is that they redefine “bigot” away from its well-established common usage. In fact, the primary function of a word like “bigot” is to very precisely exclude more conflicted, doubtful states of mind, as in: a bigot is “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” (Merriam-Webster). The obstinate devotion to certain avowed, intolerant beliefs is critical to the way that “bigot” traditionally has been used. The word has its origins in the general notion of close-mindedness: the idea is that a bigot is someone who is un-persuadable, who cannot be argued out of their beliefs. But accusing someone of being close-minded and un-persuadable requires that they adamantly hold the beliefs in question in the first place: it cannot be the case that they’re conflicted or akratic – that for example they sincerely favor gay rights as a matter of principle yet betray this principle during bouts of homophobic rage. Having unsavory impulses and poor impulse control is simply not the same thing as being closed minded and systematically intolerant. To extend the word “bigot” to someone like Baldwin is just to pervert it in order for the sake of exploiting its toxicity to his reputation.
Both Coates and Sullivan implicitly accept the standard definition of “bigot” in their original posts. Sullivan now claims that his condemnation of Baldwin wasn’t meant to be “cosmic,” despite the fact that his original assertion that Baldwin’s slurs “reveal who he actually is” – someone who can’t actually be a tolerant liberal. Coates now claims that his judgment wasn’t meant to be global, despite the fact that he claimed that Baldwin could not possibly believe that “LGBTQ human beings are equal.” What’s undeniably “global” here is the inference from the tendency to use homophobic slurs to the notion that Baldwin’s considered beliefs must themselves be bigoted. What’s undeniably unappreciative of human complexity here is the rejection of the notion (for the sake of a bogus but politically convenient inference) that there can be a conflict between feeling and considered belief. It was originally important for Coates and Sullivan to make such simplistic inferences because they instinctively understood the actual meaning of the word “bigot” as involving considered beliefs rather than homophobic tendencies and bouts of bad behavior. Now Coates and Sullivan have both backed off, without comment, their original claim that Baldwin’s support for gay rights is insincere, and deny that this idea was ever necessary in the first place to their use of the word “bigot.” To accomplish this, they must redefine “bigot” altogether.
This is not to say that common usage settles the matter conclusively: there is still the question of whether common usage actually reflects a useful distinction, and whether we want to distinguish – especially for moral purposes – the many people who actually despise homosexuality and oppose gay rights, and the case of the conflicted homophobe who supports gay rights but is prone to homophobic slurs in bouts of rage. My claim is that the distinction is genuinely (and morally) important, and that Coates’ attempt to rid us of it is convenient only for the sake of preserving his point of view. Bigotry does not constitute a spectrum: rather, it marks a spectrum’s far end. If we didn’t have the word “bigot” to denote this extreme, we’d need to find another one (“extremism” is in fact a rough synonym for bigotry, but too broad; and “chauvinism” is adequately deep but too narrow). But again, I see no reason to deprive ourselves of the word we already have, except to bastardize it for the sake of exploiting its power.
And its power also bears on we whether think of a word like “bigot” as a global judgment of character. Consider the actual use of “bigot” by Coates, Sullivan, and others for Baldwin: it is not, as Coates and Sullivan now claim, merely an innocent way of pointing out the bad behavior of someone who might otherwise be a good person. Being labeled a bigot in liberal circles is absolutely toxic: it carries with it the threat of ostracism and loss of employment. And the campaign to brand Baldwin as a bigot was designed to have real effects: to damage his reputation, to get him fired from his gig at MSNBC and shunned by fellow liberals, and presumably to make it harder for him to get gigs in the future (and this campaign has to some extent worked – Baldwin has been fired from MSNBC). This is the point of demonizing other human beings: to persuade others – and oneself – that it is OK to behave toward them in a certain punitive way. As I pointed out in my original post, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Alec Baldwin’s behavior, and legitimate forms of censure: the question is whether the use of the word “bigot” in this case, and its likely effects, are warranted and proportionate. I don’t think they are – and speculation about how the press might treat someone else in this circumstance (4) is irrelevant to the question of what is right.
Coates goes on to argue (3) that homophobia and bigotry are in fact a matter of choice, because people can change. He describes his own personal transformation out of bigotry, one that was facilitated by increased contact with gay people. And yes, it’s true: bigots can change. But such transformations have nothing to do with choosing one’s feelings. What Coates describes here is not a circumstance in which he has made a “choice.” Instead, he describes a series of therapeutic encounters – ones that he was lucky to have – that changed his emotional reactions toward gay people. It is not as if Coates made a series of calculations and suddenly decided to feel differently, in the same way he might decide between buying one house or another based on a number of desirable factors, such as price, view, and location; or willed himself into doing something, in the same way that I might will myself not to eat ice cream (unlikely), when confronted with the desire to eat ice cream. His feelings changed. And you simply cannot choose – or will yourself – to transform your aversion to gay people or black people into its opposite. You certainly can choose not to act on such feelings, if you are reflective enough to be capable of such choices. And you can choose to do things that will lead to a change of heart if given enough time to work their magic: for instance, hiring a therapist, or listening with an open mind and good will to opposing points of view, or changing the company you keep, or making efforts to change certain habits of thought – or really, by seeking out virtually any therapeutic change in internal or external environment and influence. But your feelings are not themselves choices – no matter how “terrible” or “bizarre” or “telling” it might sound to point this out.
The question then is what such therapeutic influences actually do to us: they can certainly lead us away from bigotry and homophobia, and improve our relationships in important ways with those who differ from us. But can they purify us entirely of such vices as homophobia and racism? I very much doubt it, despite Coates’ sentimental account of his own purification, in the same way that I doubt that being civilized means being rid of violent and aggressive impulses. I doubt it because the temptation to dehumanize others during our inevitable conflicts with them is enormously tempting, and our aggression is a dumb beast that is fatally attracted to crude explanations in terms of human sub-types. It’s one thing to hate John because he’s an asshole – but “asshole” is an explanation that is at the same time too vague and too dependent on particulars to be satisfying. It’s far more potent to hate John because he belongs to some easily identifiable group whose humanity we question – even if we do so only for a fleeting moment of road rage. A conscious resistance to dehumanizing generalizations does not mean that they have vanished into thin air, or that they might not emerge under special circumstances. But these days, we good liberals have less need than ever to resort to explicit racism and homophobia: because we have been told that it is acceptable to dehumanize and hate racists, bigots, homophobes, the right wing, white men, or any group that has not been accorded the protection of official liberal sensibilities.
Which leads me, finally, to Coates’ implication that a defense of Baldwin must have something to do with his race and wealth (4), and that Coates himself ought not to be accused of making global judgments of character because he is a minority, and minorities don’t have the luxury of making such judgments (5). This is the worst sort of ad hominem nonsense, and a pernicious way of thinking about the world, predicated on the idea is that there are certain sub-groups within a society whose historic victimhood makes their judgments immune to criticism; and there are others whose historic privilege makes their members legitimate targets of whatever derogations you like. You see this attitude well at work in the comments section of Coates response to my criticisms: many commenters have absolutely no problem with expressing their disdain for “white men” in general, and me and particular for being a white man: “i think it’s odd that these white men are always worried about the inner person of another white man who is being criticised by minorities” (and many similar comments). But this is par for the course on political blogs – both left wing and right – in which participants feel absolutely entitled, because of their self-conception as victims, to their contempt of someone who belongs to a purported class of oppressors. This is what political discourse in this country has become: competing, sentimental, and self-pitying narratives of outraged victimhood, driven on the right by the idea that black people and liberals are all conspiring to deprive them of their money, religion, and values; and on the left by the idea that all rich white people and conservatives are out to deprive them of their dignity and their rights. There is nothing morally uplifting about such sentimental and self-pitying paranoia, however good it might feel: it is a vice, and only hampers one’s capacity for discerning and doing what is right.
I worried, when I published a long post defending Alec Baldwin against charges of bigotry for calling someone a “cocksucking fag,” that I ran the risk of being seen as defending the indefensible. I knew that if the post got any attention, readers who are unfamiliar with my reputation as a (hardcore) liberal might interpret it as a particularly sophisticated piece of crypto-conservatism or closeted bigotry. And I also worried that friends who know me better might wonder how it is I could possibly make such a defense: my motives would be suspect. Indeed, the point of Coates’ marking a portion of my argument as “bizarre,” “terrible,” and “telling” is to signal – without openly calling me a bigot, a ploy that would be too embarrassingly obvious – the fact that my motives are in question: I’m a white guy defending another white guy, not someone making a principled argument (no matter how wrongheaded) about what I believe to be right. I am, possibly, a closeted bigot, dressing up my bigotry in a sophisticated argument; not, as I intend to be, a self-critiquing liberal who wishes to hold liberals – for the sake of consistency, intellectual honesty, and fairness – to their own liberal principles.
But my defense here is in fact entirely consistent with my longstanding interest in maintaining a principled opposition to dehumanization and moral outrage in general, as I have done in posts that happen to flatter liberal sensibilities, such as those on racism, Islam, terrorism, and moral outrage itself. It’s just that the principle is important enough to me to see it through to the end, even when it doesn’t flatter my own prejudices or those of my friends. Today, such an attempt to be principled is likely to leave people scratching their heads, because they are prone to cynicism and view the world through the prism of partisan phrenology. They wonder not whether I am right, but ask instead, “Is this guy a good liberal, or isn’t he?” If only they were familiar enough with the bumps on my head to find out.
The point of my post on Baldwin was not to defend a rich white guy, or bigotry, or his blowing up at photographers, or other sorts of bad behavior: it was to defend precisely the same notion that I’ve defended in previous pieces, to the effect that acting on or unreflectively basing our beliefs on our sentiment of moral outrage (and its accompanying tendency to demonize) is toxic to our political discourse and profoundly politically dangerous in the long run. Far from being an effective tool for the enforcement of morality, it is in fact radically morally compromising, both to those who wield it as a cudgel, and those who succumb to it. There is a very effective way to deal with bigots, and it is this: it is to argue against their views – to make detailed, humane, and well-considered arguments of the kind I’ve offered here; or of the kind I offered in my post on enlightened racism, in which (despite a liberal deployment of the word “racism”) I’m actually attempting to persuade my opponents rather than shame them out of their point of view. As I’ve argued before, this does not mean we simply rid ourselves of or repress our moral outrage: rather we subject it to scrutiny and sublimate it into something constructive.
You may see such a view as hopelessly naïve, a form of discursive pacifism or non-violent protest that leaves one in danger of being overrun by the opposing, barbaric discourse: and indeed, many readers of my piece will worry that without a free reign for moral outrage, we lose a critical tool for the enforcement of moral norms. For them, moral discourse is not a negotiation but a form of Hobbesian war of all against all. They advocate sacrificing our intellectual freedom in the name of a perpetual war on moral terrorism, treating every slur as a verbal detonation. In believing this, they effectively hold that human beings must be shamed – essentially socially tyrannized – into compliance with certain norms, or else all is lost. This is a deep and very dangerous error, one that while it falls short of violence becomes substantial kindling for it when the right spark appears: we owe many of history’s great wrongs to the moral self-righteousness of individuals who believe that some past wrong to them and theirs immunizes them from the same moral demands they make so mercilessly upon others.
– Wes Alwan