Bigotry? Or Disagreement?

First published in Between the Lines, June 15, 2006

“A vote for this amendment is a vote for bigotry, pure and simple.” So said Senator Ted Kennedy in response to the so-called “Marriage Protection Amendment,” which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and preempts the right of states to interpret their own constitutions regarding marriage and civil unions. (The amendment failed on a procedural vote.)

Reaction to Kennedy’s remarks was swift and predictable. “Does he really want to suggest that over half of the United States Senate is a crew of bigots?” griped Senator Orrin Hatch. Columnist Maggie Gallagher scolded, “Conducting this debate in a spirit of mutual respect and civility would be a lot easier if gay marriage advocates stopped pretending that only fear, hatred or bigotry is at the root of these disagreements.”

It’s tempting to respond, “But’cha ARE, Blanche. Ya ARE a bigot.” Please resist the temptation for just a moment.

What is bigotry? As is often the case on controversial terms, the dictionary is of limited help here. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a bigot as “one who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.” Webster’s definition is similar: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.”

Now there must be a difference between merely disagreeing with those who differ and being “intolerant” of them. By definition, everyone disagrees with “those who differ”–that’s just what it means to “differ.” And everyone is presumably “devoted” to his own opinions in some sense (otherwise, why hold them?).

So it’s not bigotry merely to disagree with someone: one must also be “intolerant” of those who differ. But what does that mean? That one wishes to silence them? Surely, that applies to many gay-rights opponents, who would like very much to push us back into the closet. That one is willing to use force to silence them? Surely, that’s too strong a criterion. Those who believe (for example) that the races should be separated are bigots even if they stop short of advocating using police power to achieve the separation.

It seems, rather, that to call someone a bigot is at least in part to express a value judgment. It is to suggest that the bigot’s views are beyond the pale. So the dictionary definition only gets half of the picture: it’s not merely that the bigot doesn’t tolerate those who differ, it is also that we ought not tolerate him. In a free society we should not silence him, but we should certainly shun him. Thus, to call someone a bigot is not just to say something about the bigot’s views, it’s to say something about your own.

Where does this leave us with respect to the marriage debate? Some opponents of marriage equality do indeed hold views worthy of the utmost contempt. Take for example the view that the government may imprison gays and lesbians for private, consensual acts of affection–a view held publicly by our own president, who endorsed anti-sodomy laws before the U.S. Supreme Court struck them down in 2003.

Or consider the view that gay partners should not be permitted to enter contracts allowing them to make health care and funeral decisions for each other–a view that will likely become part of Virginia’s constitution as voters decide this November on an amendment that, among other things, prohibits recognition of “a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage.” (Intolerant? Who are you calling intolerant?)

Certainly, not everyone who supports the federal marriage amendment deserves the epithet of “bigot.” Many are decent folk. Some endorse civil unions while opposing full-fledged marriage. A good number base their views on sincere religious convictions. But let’s also recognize that basing a view on religion doesn’t exempt it from critical moral scrutiny. (Slaveholders quoted the bible too.)

Let’s grant that calling people names–even ones that accurately express our convictions–is no substitute for reasoned argument. But let’s also grant that, in politics, leaders often influence citizens by drawing strong rhetorical lines. Think of George W. Bush’s frequent references to those who “hate freedom” in the 2004 presidential race. A fair and balanced assessment of the motives of the terrorists? Not really. Rhetorically powerful? You betcha.

Now, Kennedy didn’t exactly call supporters of the amendment bigots. Rather, he called the amendment “bigotry.” (It’s a fine line, not unlike “love the sinner/hate the sin.”) It’s certainly possible for a political maneuver to be unacceptably intolerant even though some of its supporters fail to realize as much.

But in calling the amendment “bigotry,” Kennedy was not merely describing it. He was also exhorting others to oppose it, in the strongest rhetorical terms. Amen to that.