III. Bigotry and Bias

In the last two posts, I have stated that bias is not merely normal and natural, but that it may even be considered "God-ordained." Then we showed that Jesus in his earthly ministry demonstrated bias, and this was not immoral. At this point, one might object that I am ignoring and minimizing the terrible damage that has been done in our country by racial prejudice, and to a lesser extent by gender discrimination. Actually, I am trying to prevent further social friction by the current widespread confusion of bias and bigotry.

In this segment, I want to discuss the difference between these two attitudes. Is bias just a synonym for bigotry, or is bigotry a more extreme form of bias? This seems to be a popular notion, where any expression of disagreement on racial or gender issues can result in accusations of bigotry. We need clarity here, and charity too, and an understanding of the important differences between bias and bigotry.

1. Bigotry is the universalization and absolutization of bias. It is when a person refuses to realize the relative nature of his own bias. Instead, he says "God thinks the way I do." The phase "God is an Englishman" aptly expresses this attitude -- but it is hardly limited to the English, or to men. It is a very common tendency: bias tends to metastasize into bigotry unless checked by the awareness of one's own finitude. Yes, there it is again -- finitude is the source of bias. But awareness and acknowledgement of our finitude are our remedy against bigotry.

2. Bigotry is not necessarily an attitude of hatred or animosity, so much as the adoption of a posture of moral superiority over other groups. It is more than the recognition of difference or an expression of a natural preference for one's own group. It goes beyond that to assert a higher level of quality or essence in our group, and to ascribe inferiority to outsiders. The particular characteristics involved may be moral, mental, intellectual, cultural, spiritual, or any combination of these. An uncrossable gap separates "us" from "them."

3. Active bigotry is the most common and aggressive form of expression of superiority. It does something, it expresses hostility, it goes public, it attacks. "Passive bigotry" or "benign bigotry" starts from the same foundation of belief in personal pre-eminence, but then engages in philanthropic works to attempt to "elevate" the lesser groups. The phrase "white man's burden" expresses this attitude. Examples include some of the Reconstruction teachers who went South after the Civil War to teach ex-slaves how to read; or some of the 19th century English missionaries who went to China, India and Africa to start schools to "civilize the natives." Note: this is not to allege that most educational or mission work was motivated by bigotry.

4. An accusation of bigotry should not be casually applied to competing social and political groups, or even to individuals who are angry about some specific incident or person. It is not a single episode of name-calling or fighting under provocation. Rather, it is a sustained pattern of beliefs and actions toward a defined class.

5. Bigotry is often associated with ideology and propaganda. In fact, one of the purposes of propaganda is to promote bigotry as a shortcut to obtaining desired political objectives: the use of bigotry absolves one of having to make a reasonable case for one's own beliefs and policies. "The reason you disagree with me is because you hate people of my race." Politically active people are particularly prone to using bigotry against their opponents.

6. The danger of bigotry depends upon the person or entity that uses it. A couple of rednecks yelling hate-filled obscenities out of a car window is crude, but of minimal impact. When the governor of Alabama declared in 1963, "I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," he sanctioned a campaign of racial violence and intimidation throughout his state. When the governor of New York in 2014 declared "Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York," he was exemplifying the intolerance he claimed to loathe. Any person in authority -- politician, university professor, high-school teacher, clergyman -- who stoops to the use of bigotry is unworthy of the trust he or she holds.

7. The incidence of bigotry is a measure of social discord and conflict. Cohesive societies with a positive social life will experience less internal bigotry, though they may have strong prejudice against non-members. In contemporary America, the lack of unity of vision and values evokes a high incidence of social conflict and consequently frequent accusations of bigotry. "Your opinions are not merely wrong and dumb, they are evil and so are you." Even if a person's disagreement is founded on natural bias or reasonable argument, he or she can still be slandered in the media as a bigot. In fact, we have reached the point in American society where the most common form of bigotry is to accuse your opponent of being a bigot. Unless the opponent has given clear evidence of "active bigotry" (see point 3 above), the accusation is unjust and returns upon the head of the slanderer.


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