Notes From Babel

You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means

with 2 comments

Your humble servant has no interest in subjecting you to any further commentary about a certain NPR journalist currently involuntarily enjoying all his accrued unspent vacation days.  Instead, I’m going to spin this as another in my series of posts about the abuses of language.  A couple days ago, Andrew Sullivan showed his work for the conclusion that Juan Williams is a bigot:

“Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous,” – Juan Williams.

No, Juan, what you just described is the working definition of bigotry.

What if someone said that they saw a black man walking down the street in classic thug get-up. Would a white person be a bigot of he assumed he was going to mug him? What percentage of traditionally garbed Muslims – I assume wearing a covered veil or some other indicator and being of darker skin – have committed acts of terror? And, of course, the 9/11 mass-murderers were in everyday attire, to blend in. So was the Christmas Day undie-bomber. The Fort Hood murderer was in US military uniform, for Pete’s sake.

Glenn Greenwald nods vigorously.  E.D. Kain dissents.

Bigotry.  That’s a nasty word.  And it seems lots of people are making the same accusation. Perhaps it’s time to dust off the dictionary and take a good look at this word we’re all chucking at anyone voicing a controversial opinion.  For your consideration, here are four definitions of the word “bigot”:

Merriam-Webster:

a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.

Cambridge:

a person who has strong, unreasonable beliefs and who thinks that anyone who does not have the same beliefs is wrong.

Dictionary.com:

a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.

WordWeb:

A prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from his own.

There are some stark differences among these definitions, but the indispensable elements appear to be:

  1. a strong belief, especially directed toward actions or characteristics of another person or group; and
  2. a refusal, especially an irrational refusal, to consider reasoned support for contrary views.

The second element is critical, else “bigot” would become another synonym for “opinionated.”  The entire blogosphere would qualify.

Clearly, then, the word cannot apply to Juan Williams.  In the first place, Williams was not discussing a “belief,” but rather a knee-jerk emotion he experiences—involuntarily it would seem—in certain circumstances.  (“No emotion is, in itself, a judgement:  in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical.  But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform.  The heart never takes the place of the head:  but it can, and should, obey it.”  C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.)  In the second place, nowhere did he express any refusal to reconsider his “reaction,” even supposing such a thing were possible.   In fact, the context of the statement makes him sound sheepish and even somewhat guilty about the conditioned emotional response he’s described.

It’s pretty obvious that those wielding the big mean word “bigot” aren’t doing so because it’s accurate or justified.  They’re using it because the word has accumulated great weight in our language, likely as a result of its employment against truly despicable acts of historical racism in popular movies and television programs.  What a shame, then, contemporary sophists seem to reason, that such a powerful word be limited to its narrow meaning, when it might be used to great success in blog-wars.

Thus, the word has become an expedient for scoring quick points and putting blog-versaries on the defensive, even where there’s not good faith basis for it.  It’s a cheap argumentative shortcut used by writers too lazy or careless to articulate a thoughtful, reasoned defense of a position.  Anyone who’s used it in this already-tired Juan Williams conversation owes an apology to every practitioner of the English language.

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Written by Tim Kowal

October 22, 2010 at 11:52 pm

2 Responses

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  1. If he’s not a bigot, he’s probably a Nazi or fascist.

    Kevmo

    October 23, 2010 at 10:21 am

  2. […] Once we’ve isolated the issue to the mind of the speaker, all that’s left is to call the speaker a bigot, escort him out of the public arena, and the issue is […]


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