When Calling Others Out for Bigotry Becomes Bigotry

Bigotry is Ugly

A recent post on the subject of call-out culture and whether anyone who fails to utilize every opportunity to call others out for expressing views we regard as bigoted is morally responsible for the continued existence of bigotry has spawned some interesting discussion and led me to reflect on the potential costs and benefits associated with this sort of thing. It was in this context that I was happy to find that Church and State recently reprinted a thought-provoking post (update: link no longer active) by Lorenzo (Thinking Out Aloud) on this very subject. I'm glad they did because I was not familiar with Thinking Out Aloud and probably would have missed it otherwise. You can find the original post here.

Lorenzo lays out what will almost certainly be a familiar argument. It is difficult to find much ideological diversity within some areas of Western society that have increasingly been dominated by a narrower range a views (i.e., politically liberal views). The problem is not just the lack of diversity, although I do think that is a problem; the problem is how the increasingly narrow range of opinion has been moralized and used as a cudgel against those who do not share it.

Lorenzo characterizes the situation as follows:

Opinion that delights in seeing itself as the embodiment of morality—particularly of understanding, compassion and inclusion—and contrary views as being ignorant, exclusory and offensive: in other words, as deeply bigoted.

Thus, those who belong to the in-group are righteous and moral in their tolerance while those in the out-group can be demonized as bigots. The most important thing about this, at least to my mind, is that once we have decided that those who disagree with us are bigots, we feel little guilt about treating them poorly. After all, they are immoral as a function of being bigots.

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.

And so those who may have initially appeared to be morally righteous in their opposition to bigotry become...well...bigots.

Lorenzo goes on to address the subject of hate speech and the war against it, characterizing it as "deeply hypocritical" in that accusations of racism and misogyny are routinely fired at people who are wholly undeserving of the labels. He also points out how "Virtuous identity politics" often seems to be a game for those who are both White and privileged, leaving out many of those who are struggling with real-world problems.

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.

Lorenzo suggests that this demonization of the White working class in Britain might have had a role in the Brexit vote. Perhaps it might also have something to do with the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S.

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.

The upside of calling others out for perceived bigotry is obvious. The downside may be a bit less obvious, but I agree with Lorenzo that it is something to which we should be paying far more attention. I am more than willing to give up on claiming moral superiority over others and delighting in feeling moral contempt toward them in order to have more productive discourse and engage with those persons with whom I often disagree. I think this is going to be necessary if we are ever going to make real progress on solving many of the problems we have before us.