In his latest response to my criticisms, Ta-Nehisi Coates oddly compares Alec Baldwin to Strom Thurmond in a way that inadvertently makes my case for me. Thurmond adamantly and openly opposed desegregation and civil rights, even as the political winds were shifting the other way, while Baldwin adamantly and openly supported gay rights, long before this was the majority opinion in the United States. Do you see? That’s an important distinction: it’s one that our language ought to reflect.
This distinction is related to another, between one’s considered beliefs and one’s dispositions (or habits, impulses, tendencies toward certain emotional reactions, unconscious thoughts, and so on). It’s a distinction important to many philosophers and psychologists: lots of interesting consequences rest upon it. Coates conflates belief and disposition once again when he reiterates his view that Baldwin, if he uses language demeaning to gays when he’s upset, must be “refusing to accept another group of people as humans,” even if he supports gay rights. But when Alec Baldwin was upset in these instances, it was individual members of the press toward whom he was directing his hate. And in such moments, the (universal) temptation toward dehumanizing generalizations – as a tool for one’s hatred of a particular person – is enormous: many people have not learned how to suppress such tendencies when enraged. But this does not mean that they affirm such dehumanizing generalizations in their saner moments.
And yes, such dispositions can lead, as Andrew Sullivan, points out, to a pattern of repeated behavior. But that is what we expect of dispositions. Nevertheless, being an over-eater does not mean believing that “overeating is good,” despite the tendency toward repetition. Nor does being homophobic or in the habit of using gay slurs necessarily amount to believing that “gays are bad.” Further, two or three things you learned about Baldwin from TMZ do not cancel out the larger and very likely more pacific set of patterns he almost certainly exhibits in his relations with people – gay and straight – who don’t happen to be tabloid journalists or paparazzi.
Coates does not attempt to rebut this core argument, and he seems to think his “identity” relieves him of the responsibility of doing so: meanwhile, my identity assuredly means that I am “ignorant.” (All of this, no less, in a post meant to be evocative of Orwell). To illustrate my ignorance, Coates makes several extreme misrepresentations of tangential portions of my argument, and focuses on disputing the etymology of the word “bigot.”
First: I never claimed, as Coates has it, that a bigot must be forever and “wholly un-persuadable,” just because they’re un-persuadable in the near term; nor that they must be “wholly without doubt” or “wholly without conflict” at every minute of the day and for all time. Nor did I say that you can’t refer to actual bigots as bigots (as unproductive as it is to call someone names if you’d really like to change their minds). These are straw-man misrepresentations by someone who has been intellectually cornered.
Second: Like Coates, I’m aware of the etymological origins of the word “bigot” in the concept of hypocrisy, because when looking up definitions and etymologies I do precisely the same sorts of Web searches and come across the very same sorts of information as he. What I am actually guilty of here is interpreting such results, rather than dumping them unreflectively into a post: “religious hypocrite” doesn’t bear directly on the current usage of “bigot.” So I wanted to connect current usage (and the undeniable connotation of closed-mindedness) to the idea of someone who expresses their views with excessive zeal (whether in excess of behavior or belief). Such zeal can be a way either of conforming or, more interestingly, warding off criticism, as per Duke Rollo – in the apocryphal story associated with the word’s origins – when he refuses to kiss the King’s foot with a “no, by God.” And this use of the air of faux moral superiority to remain insulated from criticism, which I interpret as a kind of closed-mindedness, is what I saw as most relevant both to the current use of the word “bigot” and to my conversation with Coates. I didn’t think it necessary to unpack such associations, because the central argument – the one I hoped Coates would not ignore – was not about a definition, but about whether the common use of the word “bigot” preserves an important moral distinction, which in turn rests on a distinction between belief and disposition (or impulse, etc.).
If these distinctions are too fine, I understand: some people really do fetishize thinking about things, and it really doesn’t feel as good as pronouncing, “yeah man, so-and-so really is a bigot” or “so-and-so is ignorant” and leaving it at that. And I also understand the kind of response that is at the same time the writer’s equivalent of wiping all the chess pieces from the board in frustration and throwing red meat to his hungry ditto-heads. Writing these sorts of posts can be great fun. But writing pieces that are actual attempts to persuade those who disagree with you – while thinking through a problem or addressing the substance of a very lengthy and detailed critique – can be great fun too. I recommend that everyone try it at some point in their lives – even if it means bracketing out, for a moment, the question of identity.
-- Wes Alwan