I got labeled as a bigot once last month.
To the best of my knowledge this is a fairly rare event. I’m quite frequently labeled as a bastard, a slob, a hard-ass, a space shot, a fantasy merchant and virtually every other negative epitaph that is commonly associated with middle-aged divorcees, religious thinkers or ENTPs. “Bigot” usually isn’t one of them.
The occasion was one of the debates over gun control that I got entangled in post-Sandy Hook. My interlocutor was presenting a variation on the naturalistic fallacy to argue against restrictions on what are commonly called assault rifles. I’m not sure where he got his figures, but he made a claim that there are somewhere between 5 and 10 million AR-15s in private use in the United States. Thus, he argues, given how few people actually end up getting killed by them, there’s obviously nothing wrong with keeping such high-end killing machines at home in private hands.
Now like I said, I’m not sure where these figures came from, or if they take into account all of the AR15s which were purchased in the US, just because that’s by far the easiest place in the world to get them, by private armies from countries that supply the US with drugs –– the Central and South American countries that actually have higher gun violent rates than the US –– which have since been illegally exported from the US. But even if it is true that one in 15 US households is equipped to blow the s**t out of a crowded restaurant, I don’t see any rational reason why they need to be so equipped. I would go as far as to say that those who feel a need to own such equipment, for whatever psychological reasons they may have, should be justifiably subjected to deeper official scrutiny than the rest of the general public merely on the basis of their compulsion to be so massively equipped for violent action. And this, dear friends, is what is said to qualify me as a bigot.
Let me clarify my position on this matter just a tad: I am not saying that those who feel a need to own assault rifles should be categorically labeled as insane or clinically paranoid and delusional, or even as inherently bad people. I recognize that while many assault rifle owners may have been convinced by advertisers to acquire such equipment as a means of compensating for certain insecurities about their masculinity, this would not necessarily be the case for all of them, or necessarily even the majority of them. For those who wish to use such equipment as toys –– to periodically blast the hell out of inanimate objects as a form of emotional release –– I don’t see this as any more harmful or dangerous than drag racing: As long as it is restricted to the confines of secure areas where it doesn’t endanger the general public, fine by me.
What I am saying is that I find the whole idea that certain people feel a need to be equipped to kill large numbers of other human beings to be deeply disturbing, and I believe that those who feel such a need should be subject to enhanced official scrutiny on that basis alone.
I do not think of this as being equivalent to racial profiling, discrimination against religious groups or even enhanced scrutiny of those who follow particular styles of music. Of these examples I consider the last to be the closest though, and in that regard I would be willing to be scrutinized on the basis of my tastes if that’s what it came down to: I happen to deeply appreciate many aspects of the artistry of the Grateful Dead, and I consider Jerry Garcia’s death of a heroin overdose to have been one of the greatest cultural tragedies of the 1990s. But unlike many (most?) other even moderate “Dead Heads”, I have never experimented with any form of pharmaceutical recreation beyond basic alcohol. Even so, I recognize the cultural connection between this band and a certain sort of drug culture, so if I were selected for a random drug test on the basis of my taste in music in this regard I would feel rather cynical about it, but I would not take it as a violation of my basic rights. I wouldn’t be inclined to accuse the police of bigotry for checking.
It’s sort of like police having breathalyzer patrols out more heavily on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s not as though everyone who drives on those evenings is considered to be a likely drunk, but among those out on the road at such times there is a far greater likelihood of finding drunk drivers than among those in commuter traffic on a Tuesday afternoon, for instance; thus it makes a certain amount of practical, pragmatic sense for the police to run such patrols at such times. And if I’m pulled over and asked to blow at such times I don’t take offense at it. I certainly would never accuse the officer with the breathalyzer of bigotry just for being at it on the weekend!
Just as it would be absurd to accuse a cop of bigotry for breathalyzing random drivers near a bar on a Saturday night, it would also be absurd to call it bigotry if law enforcement were on the lookout for abusive forms of pornography among those with large dildo collections… or to be on the lookout for those with violent tendencies which could put the public at danger among those who collect particularly powerful killing equipment.
Charlton Hesston’s “cold dead hands” shtick, sponsored so effectively by the NRA, makes the siege mentality among gun owners –– and defensiveness regarding their identity as gun owners –– a far more emotional issue than the consumer identity of any other product line I can think of; and the higher powered the killing equipment they feel a need to possess, the higher the emotional pitch of their argument seems to get. So on that level it doesn’t really surprise me to find myself labeled as a “bigot” by a self-appointed representative of AR15 owners. Even so, it might well be time to reconsider how we use the word “bigot” and who is justifiably labelable as such.
One place where this has come out in broader public discourse over the past few weeks has been in relation to the battle over the political confirmation of Chuck Hagel as President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense. Hagel is openly critical of American expansionist neo-colonial wars in the Middle East, and thus those factions of the right wing press and the Republican Party which have the deepest commitment to such military adventurism have made a committed point of labeling him as a bigot. Why?
Well, he’s actually given them two excuses. First of all, as a military veteran and a resident of what is now called a deep red state, Hagel has apparently been socialized into a fair amount of homophobia, and 14 years ago he let a certain amount of that fly by joining in on a Republican attempt to block the appointment of an openly gay man, politically active in support of gay rights causes, to the minor post of ambassador to Luxembourg. Hagel has publicly retracted his statements of that time, but it would still seem reasonable to assume that he retains a certain amount of edgy suspicion towards those of the LGBT persuasion; and visa-versa.
That seems to be a side issue however: Those who are particularly concerned for gay rights tend to be concerned with respect for human rights across the board. The core issue for those who prioritize this issue is to insure that people are respected as people, regardless of factors that are beyond their control, such as their race, their gender, their national origin, their tribal identity and, yes, their sexual orientation. One of the primary means by which people tend to lose their basic rights most commonly and most thoroughly is through military expansionism, by whatever excuse it is carried out. Hagel’s personal priority is clearly limiting military expansionism; driving home to his fellow Americans the lessons of the Viet Nam war that he learned better than most. That gives him a common cause with the main current of the LGBT community, for which they are largely willing to look beyond his past indiscretions and lingering suspicions. As has often been the case, Senator Barney Frank has been the one to express this most eloquently. What seems to remain at issue is efforts by those who stand to profit the most from military adventurism to stir up these animosities and suspicions, which the people concerned have largely worked through already, to keep Hagel out of a position where he could cramp their style.
The more significant bigotry charge against Hagel is in relation to “anti-Semitism” purportedly reflected in his critical stance toward military expansionism by the state of Israel. Here too his critics have been able to use Hagel’s own choice of words against him: In 2006 he is quoted as referring to the unquestionably powerful pro-Israeli lobbyists on Capitol Hill as “the Jewish Lobby.” It makes it harder for Hagel’s allies to draw a distinction between sensitivity to “Jewish concerns” and unquestioning support for militant Zionist expansionism when Hagel himself blurs the line with his careless choice of words.
That being said, there is a distinction to be made there, and the Jewish-American journalist to whom Hagel made this unfortunate statement actually defends the legitimacy of Hagel’s viewpoint in context. In order for Israel to be a sustainable project, and for it to eventually develop stable and respectful relations with its neighbors (which may not be possible until its Arab neighbors run out of oil in any case, but it is still worth hoping for), they need to start treating the Arab minority among Israelis and displaced Palestinians overall as people worthy of respect as people. Creeping further and further into Arab held lands with Jewish settlements, and backing up this expansion with the Israeli army being ready to fire on anyone who throws rocks at the “settlers” is a policy well worth critiquing. Hagel’s willingness to say so is one of his chief merits.
The elephant in the middle of the room here is actually the pro-Israel American Christian Evangelicals. Among other places this is fairly clearly laid out in Barbara Victor’s book on the religious dynamics behind the GWB presidency: “The Last Crusade”. In short, there are numerous American Christians who believe that the re-establishment of the state of Israel is a sign that Jesus Christ will be coming back very soon, that as part of this process Israel needs to completely control all lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea at least, and that supporting the state of Israel is one of the most important ways for believers and believing nations to earn God’s favor. This is combined with a strong suspicion that the UN (and/or President Obama) represents the interests of the Anti-Christ. Among Americans who uncritically and unquestioningly support Israel’s expansionist policies, this sort of Christians is a more potent political force than secular Jews hoping for a secure homeland for their people.
But back to the topic of bigotry: We all have been raised with our own suspicions about “the Others,” whoever they may be. The question is how well we are able to critically reconsider our prejudices in this regard, and what sort of heuristic devices we can use without diminishing the human value of others.
Backing off to a less emotionally charged example: last summer I bought the cheapest semi-reliable looking car I could find with a larger than average amount of cargo space. As it happened, this one turned out to be a Citroen. I’m still driving it, but it has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through the basic safety inspection next month, so I’m just seeing how much I can still get out of it before throwing it away. This is in fact the fourth French car I have owned, not counting one I helped my son pick out, and I can say that it has strongly confirmed certain preconceptions I have about French cars in general. In particular I believe now more than ever that the basic electrical systems in all French cars are inherently unreliable. There are about a dozen little electronic controls on my car that work intermittently at best (seat warmers, intermittent wipers, electric windows, dashboard lights…), and a few months ago it actually had an electrical fire –– smoke and flames and all –– which, with some help from charitable passers-by, I managed to get extinguished quick enough and repaired far enough to keep it drivable. But I still pass on the practical advice to whomever it may concern: if you’re going to buy a French car, be prepared for electrical problems.
Does that mean I hate the French or their cars overall? Not at all! Under similar circumstances I would still consider buying yet another French car some day; I’d just be prepared to experience electrical problems with it. Does this count as a prejudice? Perhaps. Does it have a rational, empirical basis? I’d say. Could it be overcome in the light of new evidence? I believe so: if Peugeot, Renault and Citroen get their collective act together with quality control in this regard, and consumer testing starts to demonstrate a surprising new level of reliability, I could overcome my generalized suspicions on such a basis. Should I feel guilty about my current frame of mind on such things then? Please.
Now what about when this relates to groups of people? There is one very fundamental difference: whereas cars only have instrumental value, we have good reason to postulate that people have inherent value. In other words people aren’t just valuable for what use we might find for them; people have value in and of themselves. There is something very close to an ethical consensus that those who don’t believe this are not to be trusted. This is one of the defining elements of bigotry: dismissing the overall value of particular groups of human beings based on preconceived notions and generalizations about what “they” are like is as good an explanation as any for what makes someone a bigot.
But that does not mean that all heuristic analysis of fellow human beings is inherently immoral. I have complete respect for Indonesians as persons, but if I were to be scouting for promising basketball players I probably wouldn’t spend much time in Indonesia, given that the average height of men there is about 20 cm shorter than most other countries. If I were recruiting high-rise construction workers I might show somewhat of a preference for indigenous Americans, as I understand they are significantly less susceptible to vertigo than those of other ethnicities. Even in these limited examples individual excellence or personal limitations should not be overlooked of course, but the main point is that the generalized capacities in question are perfectly acceptable heuristic devices so long as human value is not assessed on such bases.
Heuristic analysis of functional capacities and risk factors relating to different groups of people –– especially when it is based on consumer decision patterns that they demonstrate –– is not a matter of calling the human value of such individuals into question. Thus I have no sense of guilt over feeling less comfortable with people for whom AR15 ownership is an important part of their identity than I do with others who find the mass distribution of such killing technology to be rather problematic and disturbing. I am equally at peace with my relative unease with extreme body modifiers, porn addicts, show wrestling enthusiasts and street racing participants. I recognize that such lifestyle choices do not eliminate the human value of such individuals, and there are undoubtedly many wonderfully warm, kind and stable human beings within all of these categories. But I still find such lifestyle decisions to be both inherently dangerous and potentially symptomatic of deeper psychological issues. I see no bigotry in suggesting that social workers and law enforcement personnel should pay particular attention to the behavior of those who make such lifestyle decisions –– especially to those who are emotionally attached to their assault weapons.
On the political side, I really cannot say whether Chuck Hagel is more or less prone to bigotry than the average former Republican Senator. I suspect less so, but that, I admit, may simply reflect my own prejudices. The point is that he has demonstrated a clear recognition of the human value of both gays and Jews –– those he has been accused of being most bigoted against –– and he has firmly committed himself to working with both groups towards reducing destructive stupidity and unnecessary aggression in US military policy. While that goal may be more Utopian than bringing about lasting peace in the Middle East, it is still good to see someone intent on making sincere efforts in that direction at least. For arms manufacturers and their political allies to attempt to block such efforts at restraint and re-thinking in the name of “exposing a bigot” is the height of political immorality.