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A Bigot By Any Other Name…

Ampersand at Alas, A Blog points out an important difficulty in debates about gay liberation:

One area of miscommunication in the marriage equality debate is about words like bigot and homophobe. Marriage equality opponents, quite understandably, don’t like being called
bigots and homophobes. They might genuinely have nothing against lesbians and gays; some of them have good friends who are lesbian or gay, and some of them are lesbian or gay themselves.

The problem here, I think, stems from two different definitions of bigotry. Marriage equality opponents think bigot, in this context, means someone who hates lesbians and gays.

Speaking for myself, that’s only one possible meaning of bigot or homophobe. Another meaning, which is how I tend to use those words in the context of the marriage equality debate, is someone who favors an unequal legal status for lesbians and gays. And by that latter definition, it makes perfect sense to describe those who oppose marriage equality as homophobes and bigots.

This is no different from how I view any other issue involving bigotry. To reuse an example, consider someone in the 1960s who favored laws and rules excluding Jews from fancy country clubs. That person may have had many close Jewish friends; perhaps they only favored the exclusions because they valued the club’s longstanding traditions. But regardless of this person’s personal love for Jews, they nonetheless favored one law for gentiles and a different law for Jews, and that made them an anti-Semite.

Alas, a Blog: How is bigotry defined?

Another way to put it (cribbing from the Marxists) is this: words like homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, etc. can be used either in the sense of subjective conditions or in the sense of objective conditions. On the one hand, you might use them to say of some individual person that she or he has a particular set of (negative) attitudes towards other people based on their membership in a particular group; on the other hand you might use them to say of some person or class of people that they are involved in creating, sustaining, and reinforcing material conditions that hurt people who are members of that group.

I think this is an important distinction to make–all too many people today think that racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. are all about having bad feelings towards people in some group or another; so they seem to think that if they can show that they don’t really have those bad feelings then that’s enough to prove them blameless for the hardships that historically oppressed people face. But it should be obvious that the kind of policies you support and participate in are just as important as your personal overt feelings. (Why should gay people care about the fact that you don’t personally hate them, if you support laws that make them second-class citizens?)

There’s an important caveat to point out here, though, which Ampersand doesn’t draw out. It’s certainly true that objective hostility towards gay people is just as important as a term of analysis and criticism as subjective hostility, and the reflexive urge of many Right-wingers (though certainly not all of them!) to complain about being called bigots or homophobes just misses the point, because it confuses the two ways in which the word is used. But I don’t think that this confusion is entirely the Right-winger’s fault. Part of it is due to unfortunate terminology. Sexism and racism, like imperialism, Communism, republicanism, and so on are terms that obviously can describe either a body of attitudes or beliefs, or an actually-implemented political system. The way we use words ending in -ism is just such that either interpretation might suggest itself, depending on the way in which the word is used. But this is far less obvious in the case of words like bigotry and homophobia. (If a pseudo-psychological term like homophobia isn’t meant to suggest a particular sort of personal attitude towards gay people, then what in the world would be meant to suggest it?)

This isn’t to say that we should ditch the words homophobic or bigot. They’re serviceable words, they work well enough for what they do, and we can make the distinctions we need to make even if it goes against the grain of how the words are constructed. But we should be aware that we are going against the grain, and understand that when discussion is diverted to irrelevant arguments about personal attitudes — the sort of arguments that Ampersand rightly complains of — the language that we’re using to describe people who are anti-gay is partly to blame. (Even if we don’t intend for it to be taken that way: objective conditions are as important as subjective conditions in language, no less than in politics!)

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