Subscribe to more of my writing at https://www.wesalwan.com
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
Subscribe to more of my writing at https://www.wesalwan.com
Randall Miron says
Nice job Wes.
Henry Rollins, in a show I saw in Vancouver over ten years ago, talked about using the word “fag” even though he didn’t consider himself homophobic and took himself to be a full on supporter of gays rights and understood how the word could be offensive to many people. He said he wanted to be sensitive to those who may be offended and would be careful, but admitted it was just a fun word and that he liked to say to his friends stuff like “C’mon you fags, let’s go.” Context.
Here’s a link to a good article about the issue, including a story about a woman who painted “Fagbug” on her VW after it was vandalized with an anti-gay slur. http://www.thebacklot.com/aes-gay-agenda-henry-rollins-you-must-apologize-to-glaad-now-or-else/03/2011/2/
I think if you’d read a little more closely, Ta-Nehisi is not calling you “ignorant,” but saying that your understanding of the word ‘bigot’ is “ignorant of the word’s origins, history and current usage.” He then writes “this ignorance [again, ignorance of various facts about this word] is a luxury afforded him by identity.”
This actually seems at least somewhat relevant to the main thrust of the argument. Ta-Nehisi writes that your understanding of something ignores certain facts, and you reply: “look, he called me ignorant!” immediately turning his specific claim into a global one about your character. I’m sure you would recognize that being ignorant of certain things is not the same thing as being “ignorant.” A similar thing is happening with the argument more generally; Ta-Nehisi calls Alec Baldwin a bigot, and you say “he’s making a universal claim about his character!” But he’s not. He’s making a claim about a feature of his character, albeit a deeply important one. Similarly, he’s making a claim about a feature of your knowledge, in this case a significantly less important one (one that would not be sufficient to justify calling you ignorant), rather than a universal claim about your knowledge.
Also, when Ta-Nehisi Coates “oddly compares” Alec Baldwin to Strom Thurmond, it is not because he is arguing that Alec Baldwin has done as much harm as Thurmond, or that he is necessarily as virulent, but rather that even the people we take to be quintessential examples of bigotry were often deeply conflicted, both in belief and disposition.
(Also, as I’m sure you’re aware, the question of whether morality is a matter of beliefs or attitudes is actually pretty fraught meta-ethically. At the risk of oversimplifying egregiously and tangentially, a major question in meta-ethics is whether one can believe something without feeling any inclination towards it, with internalism and externalism giving two different answers.)
Wes Alwan says
Thomas: the point is that Coates is characterizing my state of mind and relating it to my identity when he need merely have argued that my characterization of the origins of the word “bigot” was in error. And incidentally, he had my state of mind wrong, for the reasons I outline.
I understand that the comparison of Baldwin and Thurmond centers on the idea of a conflicted bigot: but it’s off, for the reasons I also outline in detail. You have to address those details if you’re interested in countering my critique.
Finally: yes, the meta-ethics of all this is fraught, and my sympathies are with virtue ethics anyway. But none of that matters: I never made the claim that calling people names in fits of anger wasn’t an ethical problem, or that the tendency to do so couldn’t be a character defect.
The question is whether you think the distinction I’ve discussed, between someone who is for example against integration (but may have nagging doubts or change his mind in the future) and someone who supports gay rights (but is prone to homophobic outbursts) is morally important. I claim that it is. The task of a critic is to show that it isn’t.
Benjamin Byron says
I am constantly frustrated by the dissonance of writers that claim to hold beliefs about human nature that acknowledge complexity, but apply rather simplistic models in judging human behavior. Wes, I think your ‘red meat’ characterization hits pretty close to the source of this tendency. Righteous indignation offers catharsis in the form of a polemic, but, to your point, fails at its purported aim–to change people’s minds. Rather, it riles the converted and silences the critics, suffocating discourse and ruining the subject matter for civil discussion.
Wayne Schroeder says
1) No one has privileged knowledge of the state of mind of another person
2) Only the person herself can render validation for her own state of mind, although even that assessment is subject to many qualifications, as in the following:
3) Psychology recognizes that individuals themselves may not know what is true for themselves as the unconscious keeps this knowledge hidden.
4) Applying moral judgments, which make claims to being true, are invalid because of the above: we cannot know with certainty the state of mind of another person , and we can only guess what our own state of mind is because of our unconscious. There is way too much uncertainty to be casting stones of certainty here.
I think psychology reflects the problem in the concept of conscious (which aligns with cognitive choice) and unconscious (which aligns with impulses outside our cognitive choices).
I can say that I experience Alec Baldwin as bigoted when he calls anyone a “fag” with emotional intensity, and point to his repeated behavior as an indicator. However I can not be epistemically certain (morally or other wise) that he is a bigot for the reasons above, and he is perhaps even more uncertain himself (unconsciously).
Wes writes above that he “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.” For Coates’ to argue otherwise, Wes assures us, is a sure sign of his intellectual desperation.
And yet, here is Wes making precisely these claims in his previous post:
“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….”
On any fair reading, Coates has represented Wes accurately. Unfortunately for Wes, he now finds his older post somewhat problematic, and has so introduced all sorts of caveats and weasel words (e.g. “forever” and “wholly” unpersuadable, or without conflict “every minute of the day and for all time”) as a ways of exonerating himself. He seems to have forgotten, however, that his readers can go back and re-read his earlier comments, in which none of this hemming and hawing is to be found.
This sort of bickering about words and phrasing would normally be quite silly, but Wes has, to a very large extent, hung his argument on the precise use of language. In that spirit, it would be unfair to let him get away with this ham-fisted revisionism. Not least because he’s been so overwhelming obnoxious about it.
Geoff Edwards says
“…has so introduced all sorts of caveats and weasel words (e.g. “forever” and “wholly” unpersuadable, or without conflict “every minute of the day and for all time”)”
Wes did not introduce this terminology into the discussion, he is quoting Coates who suggests Wes’ definition of a bigot is at some level “someone who is wholly unpersuadable, wholly without conflict, and wholly without doubt.”
So no, Wes is not getting weaselly – he is legitimately responding to Coates.
“Wes has, to a very large extent, hung his argument on the precise use of language”
All arguments hang on the precise use of language. While on the specific question of whether Baldwin is, or is not a bigot, which everyone seems to be distracted by, then the definition seems important for everyone who wants to see Baldwin condemned. Wes made no attempt to define bigot in his first essay: he responded to Coates on that issue.
To say that definitional issue is the point at which this hangs seems to miss the wider goal of the initial essay – to address the way we respond to violations of our moral vision and how we might more productively engage with people of differing opinions and ingrained prejudices.
Personally, I have generally refrained from using the word bigot as I have long operated on the definition that Wes did introduce in his second essay. I have rarely found it useful, and I have never been convinced that it is a useful argumentative strategy. And given Baldwin’s doubling down and denial it seems to have done little in the first instance to help him see his errors.
It may be that his ostracism resulting from the public gallery’s finding of “bigotry” is ultimately the thing that starts a process of change based on that behaviour that Wes describes whereby “human beings must be shamed – essentially socially tyrannized – into compliance with certain norms” . But this seems to require that he would want to get back on the “inside.”
But how do we treat those who have no interest of coming “inside”. Does, for example, labeling a conservative a “bigot” actually achieve anything, or is it actually counter productive. This is where Wes’ actual argument – the argument about how we might better engage in discourse with the moral other – starts to get important.
If you want to call Baldwin a bigot, If that is the kind of discourse you want, if you see social tyrannising as the best way forward, you and all the other warriors for the culture can get on with it.
Me, I’m with Wes. More nuance, more caveats, more thinking.
I agree that the semantic argument is silly–I think it was a mistake to get into the meaning of the word “bigot”. The central problem here is, I think, correctly identified by Wes in other essays–the problem of “moral outrage”. How should we react when people who do bad things, whether it’s something comparatively trivial, like a celebrity revealing his homophobia in outbursts against paparazzi, or whether it’s a terrorist attack on civilians? Too many of us on all parts of the political spectrum react in a purely emotional and often self-righteous and stupid way. I know I do it–it’s the path of least resistance.
In Baldwin’s case, I think it’s fair that MSNBC cancelled his show. Baldwin is a big boy and should understand his outbursts may have consequences. But I don’t think it’s fair to take his support for gay marriage and claim that his outbursts prove he was really a hypocrite all along. I forget if it was TNC or Andrew Sullivan or both who made that claim, but that’s where I think Baldwin’s critics went wrong. It makes it harder to have honest conversations about bigotry if people who inadvertently reveal their bigoted dispositions are treated as moral lepers who must be evil to the core (on that particular issue).
I generally like TNC’s essays, but this spat between he and Alwan are not bringing out the best in either one of them. Both of them have staked out strong positions and there’s an overwhelming temptation to be a little arrogant in response to what amounts to insults by one’s opponent. It’s part of what happens in any debate about an issue that elicits moral outrage.
Benjamin Byron says
I would like to offer a potential detente in this argument.
The problems that we have encountered here appear to be linked to the proper application of a particular term to a particular set of behaviors. This application is problematic, as the term refers to something not found in evidence, namely, an individual’s state of mind. If we stipulate that we can never know another person’s state of mind, but recognize that the use of the term ‘bigot’ does refer to something found in the world, we approach the impasse–how to apply such a term?
The problem is linked to the sorites paradox: “The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
For example, if someone makes one hateful utterance, does that make him a bigot? What about two? It is precisely this problem in vagueness of use that we bump up against in such discussions.
The proposed (and perhaps unsatisfying) detente is this: the sorites paradox suggests that there is no one right answer to proper application. We cannot, however, defend application based simply on the number or quality of hateful utterances. Rather, the application must be defended by further evidence. And in this scenario, the further evidence appears to be lacking i.e., Baldwin’s support of gay rights and broadly liberal politics conflict with other arguments concerning his character.
We cannot conclude that the term ‘bigot’ properly applies to Baldwin. This does not mean he is not a bigot, merely that we have insufficient evidence beyond his hateful utterances to legitimate the use of the term.
CK MacLeod says
We can call that conclusion “detente,” except that it is a recapitulation of Mr Alwan’s thesis and a contradiction of Mr Coates’. Coates clearly states his “simple argument” – by which he means his thesis, one for which he lacks a coherent argument as Alwan has shown. For Coates, if an individual engages in speech acts of the sort Coates specifies, in situations of the sort he describes, then that individual deserves the bigot “label,” and, what’s more, simply is a bigot. Coates’ argument or thesis or belief is, to use his words and his format, a “simple” if/then. If you say x, “you are a bigot.” He is, in short, seeking to defend a finally untenable theory of language that, as a question of identity or possible identity of word and object, happens to underlie social and political and for that matter professional exploitation of “identity” as well.
Given that Coates, somewhat self-contradictorily, acknowledges that even the most flagrant racists are not always simply bigots, we are left with a practical question or a question of the social good: Is it better for us, as participants in political culture, to “label” people like Alec Baldwin bigots, on the basis of inferences regarding particular speech acts, without reference to general conduct exemplifying opposition to bigotry, or is it better to reserve the word for those who exemplify bigotry both in word and deed. I take Alwan to favor the latter position, and I take Coates not to have considered the further implications of the position he favors.
I would sum up your argument with Coates thus: you both have a plausible definition of the word bigot. Yours emphasises a person’s publicly held beliefs, his emphasises the evidence of their actions. Your argument is really over who’s definition is more useful, as you both believe bigotry is a thing that should be opposed. No one needs to resort to the dictionary to have that argument.
I’m new to your blog, only here because I read both Coates and Sullivan daily. I’ve noticed how discomfited you are by Mr. Coates pointing out the plain fact that, given your different backgrounds, you have had different experiences of bigotry, and different causes to use the word. You seem to feel that pointing out your racial difference is somehow cheating, a low and unseemly tactic unworthy of what you feel is a purely intellectual question. I wonder, could you explain why you feel it is unfair to point out your whiteness?
There is a big difference between philosophy and politics.
In philosophy one is trying to get to the truth (whatever “truth” means) of things, while in politics one is trying to convince a huge mass of people who do not think about and generally cannot be expected to think about an issue very much.
So from a philosophical and psychoanalytic point of view, Wes is undoubtedly right.
However, from a political point of view, I suppose that those who call Baldwin a “bigot” are making a political example of him, since he is in the news and most of us, whether or not we have Baldwin’s anger control problems, are not in the news. Thus, when someone who does not give what constitutes a bigot much thought and never will sees that Baldwin is labeled a “bigot” and publicly criticized for using homophobic language (even though he is not a bigot in philosophical terms and simply has an anger control problem), that person will think twice before using such language.
Those who argue with Wes about whether Baldwin is a bigot either are not paying much attention to his arguments or do not care about his arguments, since their real game is not to determine whether Baldwin is a bigot, but to use him as an example in a mass media situation.