What “Hate” and “Bigotry” Mean Today

Everyone seems to agree that haters and bigots are bad people. The belief makes some sense. If someone’s way of viewing others is based on aversions that don’t regard truth or justice then it’s basically malicious, at least in the extreme cases the words “hate” and “bigotry” suggest.

So it seems that Catholics can buy into the view as long as it’s not applied too broadly, limits on subjective culpability are recognized, and “bad person” isn’t taken to mean “irredeemable.” Hate and bigotry provide an example of what Pope Francis seems to mean when he speaks of “corruption.” It’s a state in which a sin has become so integrated into someone’s life that he no longer sees it as such, or feels any need for forgiveness.

But what exactly are hate and bigotry, and where do we find them in the world around us? The words suggest something systematic and selective, so they’re different from everyday misanthropy, ill-temper, or injustice to particular individuals we dislike. Instead, they have to do with attitudes toward groups of people.

But which groups? Originally, bigotry was understood as a matter of intolerance based on opinion, as in the case of a bigoted Tory or Presbyterian. If you couldn’t have a civil dinner conversation with someone who favored episcopal church government or sided with Parliament against the King, you were a bigot.

Today that meaning is all but lost. It is considered perfectly understandable, and sometimes a sign of rationality, tolerance, and open-mindedness, to avoid a family holiday dinner because of political disagreements. Instead, bigotry is attributed almost exclusively to attitudes toward distinctions relating to race, sex, and religious or cultural heritage.

Also, the types of attitude thought to constitute bigotry have expanded, seemingly without limit. Bigotry may be “hate” but it no longer requires anger or ill will. Ordinary human loyalties or the belief some distinction traditionally recognized is real, and sometimes matters, is enough. Thus, people who believe there are intrinsic natural differences between the sexes are now considered bigots. Standing for the national anthem at football games is called out as white supremacist. And so on. Such views may seem odd but they increasingly pervade public discussion.

And finally, bigotry has been promoted from a vice among other vices to the ultimate unforgivable sin. In the considered view of the centrist Democrat who was the consensus choice of all respectable opinion to become president of the United States, bigots are not only extremely numerous and thoroughly deplorable but “unredeemable.” They have no place in our society, or so it is thought, and respectable publications present them as legitimate targets of extra-legal violence. A woman who murders her child and never comes clean about it can find absolution among respectable people more easily than a woman provoked into saying the wrong word. And in Britain a three-year-old who uses the wrong expression (like “broccoli head”) can get reported to the police as a racist and the incident entered in his permanent record.

What is going on? When did opposition to bigotry become so bigoted, and “hate” lose its connection to hate? How did it happen that pretty much everyone who ever lived now counts as a bigot to be ashamed of? For that matter, when did ordinary Church teaching regarding sex and the sexes, or the value of recognizing and protecting national distinctiveness, become equivalent to crimes against humanity?

At first such views seemed extreme, but more and more they are becoming the conventional wisdom, taught in the schools, proclaimed by moral leaders, assumed as a matter of course in law and public policy, and re-enforced by high and low culture and even by penal sanctions. The transformation is barely noticed, and generally taken for granted as an obvious good thing.

Such a change must have something immensely powerful behind it. But what? It’s a complicated story, but at bottom it has to do with the emerging globalized, technological, and integrated social order in which we live, and the ideals that support that order and the position of those who run it. These ideals present an image of a world reconstituted in accordance with technocratic norms and understandings, a single economic and social network ordered by global markets, certified experts, transnational bureaucracies, electronic entertainment, and electronic communications that make everyone in the world equally present to everyone else.

In that world, the world of Facebook, Amazon, and global mobility of labor, specific inherited culture loses coherence and function. Men and women become interchangeable economic units. Family is replaced by day care, fast food, and welfare rights. Religion merges into politically correct progressivism. And common sense and the wisdom of the people—the secular equivalent of the Catholic sensus fidei fidelium—are replaced by spin, memes, propaganda, alleged expertise, and commercial pop culture.

The resulting outlook and way of life isn’t satisfying for many people. How can it be, when it provides no place for arrangements as basic to the normal life of ordinary people as inherited community and marriage understood as a natural, functional, and reliable union of man and woman? It bears especially hard on the less successful, who don’t have careers and therapists to keep them going. So people know there’s something wrong with it, and polls repeatedly show they believe the world is going the wrong way in the face of constant spin and propaganda to the contrary.

But an increasingly narrow and ideological intellectual world makes it impossible to discuss what’s gone wrong or consider alternatives, and potential leaders get co-opted by a system that is still generally meritocratic, so popular resentments rarely lead to productive outcomes. They mostly take a crude form that doesn’t deal with fundamental problems and can seem simply disruptive—especially to people running things.

Our rulers and betters don’t want any backtalk. They know everything, they’re doing a great job, and everybody ought to be grateful and get with the program. So we’re told that what we have now is utopia emerging from an intolerably bigoted past. Apparent problems are only growing pains, or signs the project hasn’t been pushed far enough. Social disconnection must be seen as liberating, since cultural coherence is exclusionary, xenophobic, and racist. And family disintegration can’t be recognized as an issue, because any suggestion of traditional sexual distinctions, connections, and standards is understood as evil.

Hence the universal support from respectable people and institutions for current attitudes regarding hatred and bigotry. Distinctions that relate to areas of life like family or religion that elude the grasp of bureaucrats and billionaires must be seen as “hatred”—otherwise the legitimacy of their positions and actions becomes questionable. Those tempted to make such distinctions must therefore have something wrong with them. They need to be shut up and re-educated.

Nor do our rulers lack arguments for their view. It’s backed by accepted ways of thinking, which are basically technological, and don’t know how to deal with evolved organic arrangements like inherited culture and the family, and by the fears of an increasingly fragmented population, who lack reliable human connections and look to the state to protect them from people they mistrust (or are induced to mistrust, and from a world that seems increasingly chaotic and threatening.

But what should a Catholic or any well-disposed person do under such circumstances? The most important thing is to recognize what’s going on, and refuse to accept the redefinition of social morality in the interests of an inhuman social order. Inclusiveness isn’t the fundamental virtue today any more than a hundred or thousand years ago. More basic are constancy, loyalty, and respect for the ordinary obligations of daily life. It is only with the help of the latter that ordinary people can hope to live decent lives in the difficult years to come. And to maintain such virtues in these times we will need to see them as part of a setting that goes deeper than personal choice or social expectations. Now more than ever we need the Faith, the Church, and a grasp of the natural aspects of social order. Without them we become little more than raw material for the social machine now under construction.

(Photo credit: Scott Heins / Gothamist)

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).