Would anyone want to be called a bigot?

This BBC story that popped up yesterday is truly serendipitous as I had planned on writing a post about bigotry anyway (honest!)

Gay Rights group Stonewall have named Cardinal Keith O’Brien as “Bigot of the Year” following his comments on gay marriage earlier this year.

I genuinely find it baffling that someone can with an absolutely straight face demand their rights are being infringed because they are being prevented from denying other people their rights, (or as is more accurate in this case, not even be prevented from denying other people their rights, but just being told that to do so makes them a horrible person.) But that is an issue for another post. For the time being I want to dwell on what it means to accuse someone of being a bigot.

To my way of thinking, calling someone a bigot is a pretty damning insult. The word connotes intolerance, stupidity, lack of education, fear of difference, defensiveness of one’s own lifestyle and generally failing the ‘do as you would be done by’ maxim which is the cornerstone of many if not all moral systems. Unsurprisingly the first free online dictionary I found lists lots of other bad adjectives alongside: chauvinist, homophobe, racist, zealot etc.

But words can be funny things. One person’s insult can be another’s compliment. Their meanings can change over time, and can have different connotations in different places. When I was planning this post – before the Cardinal’s objection became a news story – I had been thinking of Jimmy Smitts’ fabulous diatribe in The Debate, the episode of the West Wing from Season 7 broadcast live to a studio audience where he ‘reclaims’ the term liberal from a sneering Arnold Vinnick.

Clearly the Cardinal feels that to be called a bigot is a Bad Thing and wants no part in that. But could someone logically take the ‘insult’ on the chin and stand their ground? For instance Nick Griffin is clearly proud of his racist and homophobic policies, so might he wear the term Bigot as a Badge of Honour? Taking an example from a very different context Hermione Granger takes back the term “Mudblood” at the end of the Harry Potter series. Sick of hearing this derogatory term to describe her Muggleborn status she declares herself Mudblood and Proud. (As a side note I found this a very interesting reflection of the line Dumbledore has in the books, but Hermione gets given in the films, that fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.) Actually the example is not entirely facile, given the fascinating work done tracing how genetic theory maps onto the Wizarding world.

So I would argue that the term bigot could easily be co-opted by the extreme right as a rallying point for their ilk, and that can make it that much harder to have a meaningful dialogue. And from that I actually take slight comfort in the Cardinal’s reaction. Because if he had responded by saying “Yes, I am bigoted and proud of it!” that would indicate things were much, much worse.

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