Monday, June 15, 2020

The Rhetoric of Bigotry: Hate, Insincerity, and Intolerance

Guest Blogger

For the symposium on Linda McClain, Who's the Bigot?: Learning from Conflicts over Marriage and Civil Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Imer B. Flores

It’s not the hate you give. It is the hate “we” give.
Starr Carter in The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr., 2018)

Commenting on Linda C. McClain’s most recent book for another Symposium (see Imer B. Flores, The Rhetoric of Bigotry—in Law, Life and Literature: On Linda McClain’s Who’s the Bigot?, and her Response to Commentaries on Who’s the Bigot?, 99 B. U. L. Rev. 2685 and 2713, 2728-36 (2019)), I began by articulating the core of her position:

The turn to bigotry to identify repudiated and unreasonable views explains the heavy moral condemnation and strong emotional charge the term “bigotry” arouses. To call someone a bigot may stop a conversation because it marks someone as “beyond the pale,” not reachable through dialogue or persuasion. The rhetorical retort of complaining that someone has been “branded a bigot” can be as much a conversation stopper as actual charges of bigotry. I conclude that the rhetoric of bigotry is sometimes necessary and appropriate, but at other times, there are more constructive ways to talk about prejudice, intolerance and discrimination. Rhetoric matters. Particularly if we care about moral learning and coming to new understandings about injustice and justice, we should pay careful attention to the rhetoric of bigotry.

And I counseled everyone—without any hesitation—to follow McClain’s proposal “to put careful attention to the rhetoric of bigotry”. However, I proposed a very important caveat: for her “the rhetoric of bigotry is sometimes necessary and appropriate”; for me, it can never be appropriate, since, as she acknowledged: “[T]here are more constructive ways to talk about prejudice, intolerance and discrimination” Instead—also following McClain—I urged that we should adopt a “hate the sin, not the sinner” approach and “never stop the conversation”, but keep it going no matter what.

For that purpose, I compared and contrasted extensively McClain’s book to Harper Lee’s famous To Kill a Mockingbird and infamous Go Set a Watchman novels, to emphasize the importance of following Atticus Finch’s advice. In a few words: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And in one word: “empathy”.

McClain traces the rhetoric of bigotry both in earlier debates on interfaith, interracial, and even intercultural marriages, and in later disputes on same-sex marriages, including religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, such as public accommodations, as exemplified in the Masterpiece Cake Shop case. Among the many virtues of the book is its ability to learn from conflicts over marriage and civil rights law and to apply this learning to current events.

In this contribution to the blog, I elaborate further on my own conclusion that the rhetoric of calling names or pointing fingers usually “backfires”, “boomerangs”, “flips sides”, “turns the tables” and even “stops conversations”: “You are a bigot!” “No! I am a good person! You are the bad one! You are the bigot!”

Recent events raise the question of bigotry once again: racism toward black people by police officers, and transphobia directed at transgender women in a tweet by one of the best-selling female authors of all times.

As McClain notes, the word “bigot” can be dated back to Molière’s Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur (1664). There it was a synonym of “hypocrite”, because it was associated with religious hypocrisy and insincerity. Nowadays, however, it usually refers to a prejudiced and intolerant person. She quotes the last part of the following exchange between one of the play’s characters, Damis, and Madame Pernelle, his grandmother, who had captured the conversation, denied everyone’s else possibility of speaking, and kept interrupting them:

Damis: “Your man Tartuffe is full of holy speeches …”
Madame Pernelle: “And practices precisely what he preaches. / He’s a fine man, and should be listened to. / I will not hear him mocked by fools like you.”
Damis: “Good God! Do you expect me to submit / To the tyranny of the carping hypocrite? / Must we forgo all joys and satisfactions / Because that bigot censures all our actions?”

But who is the bigot in the play? Consider the options:

(1) Tartuffe, when he affirms: “And it’s no sin to sin in confidence” and tries to seduce Elmire, the wife of Orgon and stepmother to Damis and Mariane;
(2) Orgon himself who is deceived by the Tartuffe and has not only drawn and signed a deed of gift of his house but also offered to marry none other than his daughter Mariane, who is in love with Valère, but when the truth came out: “Well, so you thought you’s fool me, my dear saint! / How soon you wearied of the saintly life— / Wedding my daughter, and coveting my wife!” “No more talk from you”;
(3) Mariane, who appeals to his father: “Spare me at least—I beg you, I implore–– / The pain of wedding one whom I abhor;” “Spare me, I beg you; and let me end the tale / Of my sad days behind a convent veil”;
(4) Dorine, her lady’s maid, who dares to challenge Madame Pernelle, Orgon’s mother: “You see him as a saint. I’m far less awed; / In fact, I see right through him. He’s a fraud”, and never holds her tongue: “What should that bigot want with Mariane?”;
(5) Damis, who defies Elmire’s plot to disclose the dishonesty: “You have your reasons for taking such a course, / And I have reasons, too, of equal force. / To spare him now would be insanely wrong. / I’ve swallowed my just wrath for far too long / And watched this insolent bigot bringing strife / And bitterness into our family life”;
(6) Madame Pernelle, who believes blindly in Tartuffe’s innocence, asserting and reasserting, among many other things: “The righteous always are maligned.” “That virtue in this world is hated ever; / Malicious men may die, but malice never.” “One often interprets things awry; / Good can seem evil to a suspicious eye.” (Until at the very end, when the truth is suddenly revealed: “I’m thunderstruck. I’m utterly aghast.”); or
(7) All of the above.

So, what makes someone a bigot? McClain suggests it is lacking “insight” and being unable “to take another’s perspective or correct one’s misinterpretations based on new information” and even those exploiting these weaknesses in others. These traits make the bigot vulnerable to a “demagogue” who “justifies” the person’s “hatreds” by blaming others for the person’s misfortunes. Nonetheless, a bigot is defined neither by the motivation for a belief nor by the content of a belief, but rather by a particular character (i.e. having prejudiced and intolerant beliefs and opinions or acting out of prejudice and intolerance to others, and even manipulating those who tend to be prejudiced and intolerant).

Some people are bigots and cannot avoid reacting as they do, and others are good people but have biases. What can we do and what can we not do to fight bigotry? In her book, McClain explores at length different ways to liberate people from bigotry—through conscience (or insight), education, and social interaction. But if there are extreme cases of bigots for whom such liberation might not be possible, the only option left is toleration—even of the prejudiced and intolerant bigot—while strongly condemning and rejecting bigotry.

Bigotry cannot be truly opposed by anti-bigots, who employ tactics that can be characterized as thuggery. It can only be opposed by non-bigots, who engage in a respectful and tolerant dialogue with everyone, and who try to convince and persuade others, including those who are polarized and even radicalized.

In my opinion, the non-bigots in Molière’s play are: Elmire, who instead of antagonizing and confronting the Tartuffe, uncovers his hypocrisy and insincerity, by talking away the blindfold from his husband’s eyes; and Cléante, Elmire’s brother, who personifies the dual urge to “hate the sin, not the sinner” (“The sinner wakes no rancorous hate in them [i.e. the sage]; / It is the sin alone which they condemn”), and to “never stop the conversation” (responding to Madam Pernelle’s provocation: —“But why give people cause to be suspicious?” —“They need no cause; they’ll talk in any case”).

In the end, as Ronald Dworkin put it: “Remember, too, that the stakes are more than mortal. Without dignity our lives are only blinks of duration. But if we manage to lead a good life well, we create something more. We write a subscript to our mortality. We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands.”

Imer B. Flores is Professor at Law School and at Legal Research Institute, UNAM (Mexico). You can reach him by e-mail at imer at

Older Posts
Newer Posts