(On Family Scholar’s Blog, David Blankenhorn responded to one of my earlier posts. In comments, David Schraub responded in turn. I then posted this comment, but thought I’d also post it here, so Alas and TADA readers who aren’t following FSB closely will get a chance to follow the debate.)
(Following Mr. Blankenhorn’s lead, I will refer to David and David as “Mr. Blankenhorn” and “Mr. Schraub,” respectively.)
Mr. Schraub has covered most of what I’d say, and frankly said it better than I would have.
But to his excellent comment, I’d add that dictionaries are not prescriptive, and to wave a dictionary definition around as if it were prescriptive displays a misunderstanding of how English works.
If a dictionary definition doesn’t describe how people commonly use a word, then the dictionary definition is incomplete. (The linguist Stephen Pinker discusses this in his book The Language Instinct.) Dictionaries are updated very slowly; it’s not uncommon for dictionary definitions to lag a decade or more behind actual usage by English speakers.
Mr. Blankenhorn, you suggest that my definition of “bigotry” is an “entirely new and idiosyncratic definition” — which is pretty amazing, since only five days ago you wrote “I like [Mr. Deutsch's] definition just fine, and I don’t see much difference between it and what I said.”
But, as Mr. Schraub correctly observes, there’s nothing new or idiosyncratic about my usage! It’s common — especially among liberals (and I am a liberal) — to ascribe bigotry to things that aren’t people, and thus possess no intent. Processes, policies, laws, arguments, TV shows, songs, comic strips, and goodness knows other things are described as bigoted (or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or classist, or ablist, etc) all the time.
So while you may disagree with that usage, Mr. Blankenhorn, it is nonetheless an extremely common usage in contemporary English speech. It’s especially common, I suspect, among some (not all) of the most highly educated speakers; go to Harvard or Yale or even my beloved Oberlin, and few people will find it odd if you refer to a policy or an idea or a TV show as bigoted. To call that usage “entirely new and idiosyncratic” is ludicrous.
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I admit, there is an argument I’m trying to avoid. It goes something like this:
JILL: Even though crack cocaine and powder cocaine are objectively very similar substances, crack, overwhelmingly used by black people, is punished far more harshly than equal amounts of powder. The effect of this federal law is bigoted, in that black people are punished much more harshly than white people for the same crime.
LUCY: Are you saying the Senators who wrote the law were bigots? What evidence do you have that they were acting out of malice towards black people? How dare you maliciously attack Senators this way, just as the commies once maliciously attacked FDR?
Jill wants to talk about a bigoted policy. But Lucy diverts the discussion from one about policy, to one about what’s in people’s hearts. A few points about this:
1) Note that this tactic Lucy uses also changes who we’re discussing. Jill was talking about harms to black people; but Lucy diverts the discussion to one being about Senators, an overwhelmingly white group of people.
Similarly, when I talk about how banning same-sex marriage is a bigoted policy, the main thing I’m discussing is how that policy harms same-sex couples and their children. When someone responds “how dare you call me a bigot!” — even though I’ve done no such thing — what they’re generally doing is kicking LGBT people out of the center of the discussion, and instead attempting to make the discussion all about what’s in straight people’s hearts.
2) When Lucy changes the debate to what’s in someone’s heart, she’s cutting off a potentially fruitful debate about policy, and replacing it with a useless debate about what’s in people’s hearts. How can Jill possibly know what’s in the hearts of the 50 or more people who in some way contributed to writing a policy? How could such a thing possibly be proven or disproven?
The debate is turned into garbage by Lucy, who it would appear prefers to spend her time in a discussion that looks like this:
JILL: Anyone who supports this policy is a bigot!
LUCY: You’re just calling anyone who disagrees with you a hater!
Mr. Blankenhorn, is that the discussion you want to have? I hope it’s not. But that’s where you’re driving this discussion, by refusing to accept that we can discuss if a policy is bigoted without discussing what’s in people’s hearts.
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I want to have a discussion of one of the things that is crucial to me and to most supporters of marriage equality — fighting bigotry and inequality against LGBT people — and I want to do it without attacking you or Ms. Marquardt personally. But I can’t do that if you refuse to meet me halfway.
Look, there are (as far as I can see) three positions here.
1) Any discussion of how a policy is bigoted, is the same as saying that anyone advocating that policy is a bigot, and is a personal attack. If Barry claims otherwise, he’s being disingenuous. Therefore, Mr. Deutsch should just go ahead and say that Blankenhorn is a bigot!
Position 1 is untenable for a debate, because it’s not fair to Mr. Blankenhorn to have to put up with personal attacks.
2) Any discussion of how a policy is bigoted, is the same as saying that anyone advocating that policy is a bigot, and is a personal attack. If Mr. Deutsch claims otherwise, he’s being disingenuous. Therefore discussion of how policies might be bigoted against LGBT people should be taken off the table.
Position 2 is untenable for a debate, because it’s not fair to me to take one of my crucial issues off the table as a prerequisite for having a discussion.
3) We can talk about how a policy might be bigoted without implicitly accusing everyone who favors that policy of being a bigot.
Obviously that’s the position I favor.
But Mr. Blankenhorn, here’s my question for you.
Position #1 and position #2 are both untenable foundations for debate; #1 is unfair to you, #2 is unfair to me.
You seemingly reject position #3, as well.
So could you please propose a position #4, as an alternative?