Is There Such a Thing as Bigotry?

Statements of the form “members of Group X are, on average, less good along dimension A than are members of Group Y” are commonly regarded as bigoted. The first instinct of someone committed to Overcoming Bias is to understand that statements like that are empirical statements that could be true or false, and if the evidence was that they were true, then saying so should not carry any moral taint.

There is much to be said for this view, but to apply it in the broadest possible way would seem to require one to believe that there there is no such thing as bigotry at all; statements are either true or false, true ones are good and false ones are bad, and the intent with which they are offered is irrelevant. I got to thinking about this in response to some comments that were left in response to this post about Israeli Jews and Arabs each thinking that members of the other group are “unclean.” Some of the commenters seemed to think that the factual question of which group took more showers was the issue. But this is a case where the facts are just about completely irrelevant. It is perfectly possible that one group is objectively less clean than the other. It is clear, however, that charges of “uncleanliness” regarding a rival group, whether the uncleanliness is supposed to be physical or spiritual, whether it is real or imagined, is a way of arousing the emotion of disgust, which is often a necessary emotional precondition to hatred. The actual facts about uncleanliness are beside the point, and the statements are a reflection of extremely worrisome bigotry.

A working definition of a bigoted factual claim should be any claim, whether true or not, that is intended to have the effect of inducing disgust or hatred in members of another group. As a practical matter it may be difficult to tease out when a particular true statement is offered with this intent (or whether members of the group in question might reasonbly suspect that it is offered with this intent, which is not necessarily the same thing) but I don’t see how one can avoid the conclusion that there is such a thing as a statement that is true but still bigoted.

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  • You don’t get to define commonly used words as you wish. Google gives these three definition of “bigotry”:

    the intolerance and prejudice of a bigot

    A bigot is a prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from their own.

    Prejudice carried to the extreme of overt hatred, often carried to the point of violence.

    Intolerance is not hate, and prejudice is widely defined as a biased evaluation.

  • I once saw on a professor’s door (not at my college) two lists. The first was of all the Jewish Nobel Prize winners, the second was of all the Muslim Nobel Prize winners. Below the lists were the total number of Jewish people in the world and the total number of Muslim people in the world.

    Although I imagine the lists were factually accurate, their posting seemed bigoted.

  • David J. Balan

    My claim is that there is an important category of statements that are objectionable because of their invidiousness, even if they are true. I’m not married to calling that category of statements “bigoted,” although no other word comes to mind that would be commonly understood.

    This is exactly the sort of thing that I had in mind. The idea that there are features of Muslim cultures that, at this moment in time, make them particularly aggressive is something that, given the stakes, Enlightenment-based societies have to take seriously if they are to survive. But your Professor’s list doesn’t serve this purpose. Rather, it exists to transmit the message that Muslims are savages and so anything we do to them is OK.

  • David, I suggest you use “speech act” instead of “statement”. The latter term includes the former meaning, but also others. A fact, or a statement of fact, devoid of context, cannot be bigoted, even by your argument here. It’s the speech act which is bigoted.

    Robin, the definition of “bigoted”, as applied to language, seems to me to match how David is using it here. The definitions you offer are of “bigot”, or “bigoted” as applied to people, which is a substantially different sense than “bigoted” applied to actions or speech. Also, your links are broken.

  • Could you change the comments formatting so that the dotted line is after the poster’s name, instead of before it? Would make it easier to follow the flow 🙂

  • Tim, I have very limited abilities to change the style here. If someone wants to volunteer as webmaster, maybe they could do more.

  • billswift

    If a true statement can be called bigotry,
    then bigotry can be justifiable.
    This probably isn’t what you wanted to say,
    but it is the only response a “non-liar” could
    reasonably make. Dishonesty is worse than
    bigotry in my world-view. Dishonesty should be
    one of the worst moral failings of anyone who
    considers himself a scientist, or just a decent

  • Stuart Armstrong

    What bigotry tries to do is to end the discussion there and then. Whether what is said is true or not is immaterial – the objective is to stop further debate, stop further complexity.

    “There are a lot of jews in the media industry”, “women are not as good at maths as men” – both true (on average!), both often used to end the conversation.

    Bigotry is not so much in what you say, but in why you say it, and how.

  • “A working definition of a bigoted factual claim should be any claim, whether true or not, that is intended to have the effect of inducing disgust or hatred in members of another group.”

    So true factual statements about the Ku Klux Klan or Nazis are bigoted if they are offered with an intent to evoke disgust?

    Isn’t it possible that some groups really merit disgust while others do not?