Bigots Ruined It For You

[Trigger Warning for rape, misogyny, racism, assorted bigotry]

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic Jain or Hindu, wanting to express your desire to be good, wanting to evoke Shakti with a clear symbolic representation as a flag or tattoo or something. You find the perfect symbol, one that has been used for that purpose since ancient times, the swastika. But you can’t use it. Bigots ruined it for you. A whole army of racists and supremacists claimed that symbol as their own and flew it over a campaign of genocide. It’s tainted, possibly forever. Try to adopt that symbol, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Nazi, a bigot.

Let’s say it’s Halloween. You’re hosting a party for your friends, and you want to put together a costume that’s kind of ironic, something that you put thought into but looks like you just kind of threw it together. You settle on a classic ghost costume–white sheet, head to toe, with eye-holes cut out, like all the kids in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” You could flair it up a bit with a point toward the top, like the little tail bit on heads of those ghosts from Casper. But you can’t wear that costume. Bigots ruined it for you. Dress like that, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a white supremacist, a Klansman, a bigot.

Let’s say you’re an enthusiastic southerner in the United States. You want to represent your heritage with a symbol of the South, something that proclaims in bold, primary colors your love of the land of barbecue and hospitality and Molly Hatchet. There’s a flag you can fly to do just that, except…except it was designed in a bloody war over (among other things) the right to treat some humans as less than human. It’s a well-designed flag, but bigots ruined it for you. It’s been tainted, by the war that spawned it and the continuing centuries of racist policies that followed. Fly that flag over your house, in your garage, on your trailer hitch, and you’ll be mistaken for one of them, for a racist, a segregationist, a bigot.

Let’s say you heard a funny joke recently. It’s kind of offensive, because it plays on stereotypes that you know aren’t true, but it’s a well-constructed joke nonetheless. You know you could tell it with perfect timing and get a roomful of hearty belly-laughs. Besides, you don’t believe those stereotypes are true. They’re absurd! But you can’t tell that joke anyway. Bigots ruined it for you. You may recognize that those stereotypes are false exaggerations, and you may know that everyone who hears you tell the joke knows that, but there are people who still believe those things, and there are people who are still hurt by those stereotypes, still affected by their presence in our culture. Tell that joke, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe, a bigot.

Let’s say that you’re a Christian. You follow Christ’s teachings and recognize that the most important thing–like it says in First Corinthians, like Jesus said to the scribes–is love. You want to express your Christian love by standing up for family values, because families–of any shape or size or configuration–are the purest example in this world of God’s unconditional love, and you value that. You see love as the most fundamental part of the Christian message, the foundation of Christ’s teachings, and so you would call yourself a fundamentalist Christian to express its importance to you. You define sin as that which is opposed to love, acts of jealousy and hatred, and see such acts as the worst crimes that one can carry out against their fellow humans. Despite that, you recognize that no person is truly evil, that those sins of hatred and jealousy come mostly out of ignorance, and that they can be corrected and defeated with love. You would advise people not to get angry at the hateful, but to hate the sin and love the sinner. But you can’t use those phrases–“family values,” “fundamentalist Christian,” “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Bigots ruined it for you. Use those phrases, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a homophobe, a fanatic, a bigot.

Let’s say you want to talk to a stranger in an enclosed space, like an elevator or a bus or subway car. After all, people end up in those things together, and it’s really awkward to just sit around staring at the wall silently or pretending other people don’t exist. Besides, a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met yet, and you’re a friendly person. So you’d like to seize the opportunity to make small talk. But you can’t. Bigots ruined it for you. Rapists and sadists committing what are, effectively, hate crimes against women, along with violent misogynists and a culture that ignores them and dismisses the concerns of women, that blames victims and makes rape and harassment costly to report, have ruined it for you. Try to strike up that conversation, and you’ll be mistaken for one of those people, for a rapist, a violent person, a misogynist, a bigot.

Bigots suck. They make life shitty for lots of people. They make life shitty for the people who are targeted by their bigotry. They make life shitty for people who have to endure the inequalities built into a culture that rose up on bigoted foundations, even as more enlightened people recognize the mistakes of the past and try to dismantle that bigotry. And they even make life shitty for people who, in their innocent cluelessness or lack of empathy, might be mistaken for bigots. The solution is not to lash out at the targets of that bigotry, at the people who’ve suffered the most because of it, for being unable to look into your heart and your past and see that you’re not a bigot at all. The solution is not to lash out at people for being unable to discern whether an action is motivated by bigotry or ignorance. The solution is to realize that bigotry makes things suck for everyone. If you’re going to lash out, make sure you’re lashing out at the bigots. They’re the ones who ruined things.

2 Responses to Bigots Ruined It For You

  1. Joshua Issac says:

    People who say that “action X is offensive and unacceptable because X was done by bigots” are also bigots themselves (see association fallacy).

    Hindus are not going to stop using a symbol they have used for thousands of years, just because some bigots (like the Nazis) used it as a symbol for their racist ideology for a decade, and some other bigots (those who equate the swastika with Nazism and get offended by it) cannot imagine a purpose for that symbol other than for those racist ideologies. Same goes for all the other examples.

  2. Doubting Tom says:

    People who say that “action X is offensive and unacceptable because X was done by bigots” are also bigots themselves (see association fallacy).

    Ah yes, the old “maybe you’re the real bigot!” gambit. Goes so well with “you’re just intolerant of intolerance!”

    As long as we’re looking up fallacies, you might want to linger over the strawman page a bit. Might be good to actually look up what “bigot” means, too.

    Hindus are not going to stop using a symbol they have used for thousands of years, just because some bigots (like the Nazis) used it as a symbol for their racist ideology for a decade, and some other bigots (those who equate the swastika with Nazism and get offended by it) cannot imagine a purpose for that symbol other than for those racist ideologies.

    Perhaps you should learn a bit about how symbols work. Symbols are a method of communication via representation. Communication only works if the person communicating and the person receiving speak the same language. Language changes over time, as words evolve new meanings, shed old ones, and gain various connotations, and the same is true of symbols.

    You can be a Hindu and use a swastika as your people have for thousands of years. To other Hindus–people who speak the same symbolic language, people with the same set of culturally-assigned connotations, this might be perfectly understood and thus perfectly acceptable.

    But carry that flag around in the western world, and you’re going to be inadvertently communicating a very different message. Because while you’re trying to evoke Shakti, your audience is going to hear “white supremacy.” If you’re willing to take that risk, if you’re willing to go into excruciating detail about how, no no no you’re not racist this is an artifact of my culture and it was misappropriated and it’s all about Shakti, go right ahead.

    But the fact remains that such clarifications become necessary if you want to effectively communicate the message you intended to convey. And the fact remains that even people who receive that message are likely to think that you’re intentionally trolling or stirring up shit to get a reaction. Because bigots ruined it for you by appropriating your symbol and associating it with their bigotry.

    The same goes for the other examples. It’s possible to want to do those actions in a non-bigoted way, but your non-bigoted motivations will be mistaken for bigoted ones because of the connotations attached to your actions by bigots. If you don’t mind being mistaken for a bigot, go right on with your bad self. Take that risk. And risk being labeled a bigot as a result, because what you’re intending to communicate and what message your audience is receiving are at odds, and your audience doesn’t have the ability to telepathically read your intentions and realize, no, in fact, this guy just genuinely loves Dukes of Hazzard and that’s the only reason he has the stars and bars on his car. To the outside observer, engaging in actions or adopting symbols that communicate bigotry will make people think you’re a bigot, whether or not you actually are one. And it will make bigots think you support them and lend them legitimacy, which perpetuates the whole problem.

    You can call that bigotry, but it really just indicates the rest of your problem: that you don’t understand how language works. Words (and actions, and symbols) have meanings, and moreover, have connotations, and intent doesn’t magically strip away those connotations. If you want to communicate effectively and not be misconstrued or misunderstood, then you need to be aware of those connotations.

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