I'm surprised I didn't touch off a firestorm for calling Gene Robinson a bigot. I've done it before with Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan. I just discovered that in the comments on this post, someone has been calling PseudoPolymath a bigot for wanting to retain marriage between a man and a woman on religious grounds. Meanwhile, this is someone who is casting all people who have religious reasoning for any reason that has any bearing on the moral issues related to homosexuality as bigots. I think that very action is bigoted, and that's exactly what my problem with Robinson was (he was more general in his terms, but the context showed he was talking about this very issue).
I just did a Google search for 'bigot' and discovered that a lot of bigots have Google-bombed James Dobson's bio with the term 'bigot' so that he comes up as the second Google entry. This strikes me as one of the lowest things a human being can do. Have people lost touch entirely with what the word 'bigot' means? A quick scan of the OED entries on words from this root makes it clear that the word once had to do with someone being obstinately and unreasonably committed to a view. In other words, it was once a synonym of what 'partisan' used to mean before it has now come to mean "someone with a view". Nowadays, though, that's not what the word means at all, and if it were it would certainly include most of the people calling Dobson a bigot. After all, they don't understand him and therefore must not be basing any of this on reason.
Merriam-Webster gives a much more up-to-date definition: "a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices". This isn't quite far enough, but include intolerance and prejudices helps. As I've seen the word used in ordinary contexts, it always has to do with unfairly viewing a group as something they're not and then treating them as morally lower because of it. Still, Merriam-Webster is on to something. The notion of being obstinate or intolerant is crucial to how the word is used now. Someone's simply not having an argument is no longer sufficient for their being truly called a bigot. They must be obstinate or intolerant, and it just doesn't seem to me that Dobson is either. Anyone who has ever listened to him on the radio should know that, and I grew up listening to him every day. My parents thought his stuff on raising children, which has always been his primary concern, was excellent, and as far as I can tell it really is. So why is it that I don't think Dobson, Pseudo-Polymath, and many on the religious right simply do not count as bigoted, while I do think those who call them bigoted are being bigoted by calling them bigots?
I really like a lot of what's gone on at the new Left2Right site. The goal of the site seems to me to be excellent. A number of left to moderate academics, most of them philosophers, most of them top-notch scholars, want reach out to Bush voters to figure out how to speak their language, to communicate their own center-to-left values but in a way those accustomed to listening to the right will more likely understand. Velleman seems to be very good at seeking to move toward this goal, and I commend his efforts. What's strange is that a number of the bloggers on this site seem to have the idea that the way to start doing this is to insult conservatives, and I have to say that some of that even seems to me to fall prey to the bigotry charge that I'm discussing in this post, though it's not as clearly what I'm targeting as the examples I've already given. My beef with them is more that I just don't see why that kind of thing even approaches the point of the site rather than undermining it. I really wonder if those in charge of this site need to rethink who is involved.
Anyway, one post by David Velleman really seemed to me to be right on track, and it has a bearing on the issue at hand. Velleman says, "we have to distinguish condemning homosexuality from stigmatizing homosexuals, which must in turn be distinguished from infringing on homosexuals' rights." Then, again, "In both the civil rights movement and the women's movement, demands by oppressed groups to have their equal status respected have been combined with efforts to repair their self-esteem and its sources in the esteem of others. As a result, disapproval has come to be conflated with discrimination."
David seems to recognize exactly what I'm complaining about. Dobson is the sort of person who has a moral view. His view is that homosexual sex is wrong and that pursuing an orientation proudly that considers that a fundamental part of one's identity is also morally wrong. He doesn't stigmatize gay people. He doesn't condemn them in any sense other than that he thinks what they're doing is wrong and will be held accountable to God, the same way vegetarians don't necessarily condemn anyone more than saying that it's wrong to eat meat and wrong to pursue a lifestyle that requires raising animals in awful circumstances and then killing them in horrible ways to produce meat to eat. These aren't entirely parallel, but the I don't think the differences are relevant to the comparison. Anyone with a deeply-held moral conviction is automatically going to disapprove of the conduct of people who do the thing they disapprove of. If it's a genuinely moral disapproval, then they will think them morally wrong for doing it. If the person also adds to it that they find their very identity in that thing, then they will feel as if the person hates them for who they are, but that's their projection and not part of the person's attitude. This is what the victimologist mentality of identity politics has done to public discussions of homosexuality. It happened with some Jewish leaders with Mel Gibson's movie about Jesus' death. It happens with Christians when the Ten Commandments are removed from a courthouse. It happens with Brights when Christians say atheism is morally repugnant (see the post I just linked for more on all these examples). Yes, it also happens with gays when someone says homosexuality is wrong (which I have argued is an uncareful way to put something that takes much longer to put properly). This is human nature. People form with a group and then see themselves as opposed to those outside the group. Then when someone says those in the group that doesn't fit with their perception, often formed through their isolation, it's assumed to be racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc. It may be completely innocent, or it may be a minor offense, but it's made into hate by those in the group. I think that's exactly what's happened here, and I think it has led to a genuine hate for Christians, at least Christians who hold conservative views on homosexuality.
What's worse is that this identity politics mentality has transferred to all those who have come to agree with the political goals of the gay rights movement (I won't call it "the gay agenda", because there's no such thing). The reason is that they've bought the rhetoric that moral disapproval is bigotry. Why? That's what I don't understand. David Velleman makes some clear moral distinctions, and even some really smart moral philosophers who should know such distinctions are simply failing to see how they apply in this situation. If that's the case, then it's no surprise that those less keyed in to those distinctions will miss them. But why are these distinctions being ignored? One possible explanation is that it simply fits what people want to hear. This is eminently plausible to me in the shouting match that the political debates in this country have turned into. This was one reason David formed Left2Right in the first place. Unfortunately, those who want to continue the shouting matches instead of discussing have invaded their comment threads, and they keep having to shut down the discussion.
The political reality is that people don't want to listen. They watch CNN and The Daily Show and read The New York Times or Daily Kos if they are more liberal and want to hear things that support their views. They watch or listen to Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, or Sean Hannity or read World Magazine or The National Review if they're conservative and only want to hear things that fit with their view of reality. Those more "politically active" will listen to the opposition and then call or email in with substanceless comments that are supposed to have some effect because they're loud and strenuous. It more just convinces the opposition that no one of that viewpoint has anything to say. Now I know this isn't the case with most who are more informed. At least they make a pretense of reading some things they disagree with, and some genuinely enjoy finding provocative arguments for conclusions they disagree with, but people like David Velleman are rare. He really seems to understand conservatives and conservative evangelicals in particular (in some ways, anyway).
I don't know if this is a complete explanation of what's going on, but the shouting match, the compartmentalization of news and opinion sources, and the politics of identity seem to me to have played a huge role in why people have been misusing the term 'bigot'. The one other element is simply that most of the people saying these things just don't know anything about James Dobson. As far as I've been able to tell, he's a genuinely compassionate man who really cares about the state of the world today. He happens to view some things as morally wrong that many on the left disagree with him on, in some cases vehemently. That's about the extent of it, though. That doesn't make him a bigot.
I say all this, and then I have to admit one thing that complicates it. I haven't really addressed the issue of public policy. Some people don't think Dobson is a bigot because of his views on the morality of sexuality. Some call him that because of his views on what should be law. I think this makes little difference, actually, but let's see what those little differences are. One thing people will do is compare it to those who supported anti-miscegenation laws. I've argued before that it's much more complicated. I don't think laws against gay marriage really count as anti-gay discrimination. If anything they're sex-based discrimination by not giving men the privileges (notice that I don't call them rights) that women have to marry men (and women don't have the privileges men have to marry women). Gay men have the same privileges as other men when it comes to which people they might marry. They are allowed to form a contract with any unmarried man of legal age who consents to marry them, as long as it's only with one at a time. So it's not technically discrimination, at least not against gay people.
At the same time, there are privileges (not rights) that gay couples cannot have (where there are no gay civil unions) that heterosexual married couples do have. That's what really drives this. It's not anti-gay discrimination, though. It's discrimination based on a legal category, marriage, which everyone thinks is perfectly fine when it doesn't involve a gay unmarried couple. The complaint is that those unmarried couples can get married. So if there's any sexual orientation discrimination, it's not against individuals but against couples, who aren't a legal entity without marriage. They claim that they have the right to be a legal entity, in which case there would be legal grounds for calling them the sort of thing that could be discriminated against, but there is no legal ground for that now, and if there were then it would no longer be the sort of thing that they'd consider discrimination. Do you see the problem? There technically isn't an entity that can be discriminated against, not according to the law, and there can't be that entity by law. The complaint is that there morally should be such an entity, and then it would be seen as discrimination.
This is why I see no problem with giving gay couples the privileges heterosexual couples whose union is recognized legally can have. I don't see it as a rights issue, because I have no absolute right to visit my wife in the hospital. The government gives me that privilege, and I'm glad for it. It may be the hospital's moral obligation to give it to me, but that doesn't mean I have the right to expect it. I have very few rights, in my view. I see no connection between any constitutional right and that sort of thing. On the other hand, it might be the government's moral responsibility to give these privileges to gay couples. Why wouldn't it? It's not at all the government's business to take the religious notions of marriage and then declare where and when they apply. I'm not sure the government even has the right to use such terms when they keep track of civil unions between heterosexual couples, because I'm not sure if secular unions should count as marriages according to some of the dominant religious accounts of what marriage is. For Catholics, for instance, marriage is a sacrament administered by the Roman Catholic Church. I don't even know if my marriage is a marriage on their view. Maybe all it takes is a blessing added to a civil union, but is that blessing there with my marriage?
For that reason I think it's wrong to take the view Dobson does on gay marriage. I'll even say that I think it's morally wrong to take that view. It's lacking in Christian virtue to take that view, since the privileges a government can give a gay couple do not grant any moral status to gay unions but do recognize the inherent humanity of gay people and the fact that gay people are not on some lower plane morally. Herein lies the problem that I think explains a little more behind the anti-evangelical, anti-those-who-oppose-gay-marriage, anti-religious-right, anti-those-who-think-homosexuality-morally-wrong bigotry. Dobson does not put gay people on a lower plane morally. Yet he won't advocate something that would clearly demonstrate that he doesn't do that. Not doing something that would demonstrate that you believe A does not mean you believe not-A. Still, people see his unwillingness to advocate this little thing (and it really is little in the grand scheme of things, given what I've just argued) as obstinate, unreasoning, and uncaring. I think all three labels are misapplied, and therefore he's not a bigot. I also think those who call him that have been obstinate, unreasoning, and uncaring in their far-flung and unthinking, unlistening, unreasoning, and obstinate applications of the label 'bigotry', which is why I do call them bigots.
That's how I can justify the use of the label in the cases I've singled out without allowing it in the cases I'm defending. It would be so easy for them to avoid this charge more clearly, but the fact that they don't do that thing does not make them bigots and does not justify the venom directed against them. After saying all this, I do want to say that there's much venom against gays from people claiming Christian support for such statements. This comes from some just not realizing that the Bible clearly declares flesh and blood not to be the enemy. I think others are just horrified by the idea of homosexual sex, and they somehow cannot separate that from their evaluation of the person the same way most people, including gays, have trouble separating the horrifying nature of bestiality from our evaluation of those who have sex with horses. I'm not saying gay sex is like sex with horses in every way, but they have one thing in common. Many people are horrified by the thought of them. I find that there's greater disgust at bestiality, but it seems to me to be a similar kind of disgust even if it's not to the same degree.
This kind of thing is genuine anti-gay bigotry (not having the disgust but being unable to separate that from how someone evaluates, talks about, or interacts with a person). It seems to me to be the same kind of bigotry of those I've been complaining about, because they've been unable to separate their disgust of the practice of declaring certain sexual acts or sexual identities to be morally wrong from how they evaluate, talk about, or interact with those who do those things. I have trouble seeing how it can be as visceral, and therefore it seems to me to be a less biologically conditioned and more socially conditioned bigotry. Still, it's bigotry. That's my contention, and I hope I've explained why I will insist on calling it that.