Understanding Bigots, Part II

In a previous post, we made the case for understanding (if not respecting) the vast swaths of the electorate who voted for Donald Trump – whom we characterized as, ahem, somewhat unlettered. It will do us no good to deny the existence of fear-based thinkers, and it will do us even less good to pretend that we can win sweeping electoral mandates without them. They are legion, and they vote.

That means that liberals must create messages and narratives that appeal to emotion centers in the brain and also find vehicles for delivering, reinforcing, and inculcating these messages and narratives to, in, and into a population that we have largely ignored.  As teachers of constitutional law, equal protection, and the equality principle generally, The Laughing Chimps have come to understand that one of the driving forces behind right-wing thinking and politicking – bigotry – comes in discrete varieties that liberals have largely misunderstood and certainly failed to adequately study.

A review of history in general and of American legal history in particular lays waste to the lazy liberal dogma that every bigot fits the same description: toothless, cognitively impaired rube with an appetite for small-game vermin but big-game munitions; an aficionado of jerkies and cheap Milwaukee beers; a man with an eye for confederate battle memorabilia and younger first cousins in tight blue jeans. (This stereotyping of the enemy is analogous to the constant right-wing refrain that terrorists “hate us for our freedom.” It’s rubbish – they don’t hate us because we’re free; they hate is because we’re different. Even that is a gross simplification, but at least it points in the right direction.)

What we discovered with the election of Donald Trump is that not every bigot is a white, male, illiterate, uncultured dweller of the backwoods with a radar dish bigger than the cement slab under his rusted-out trailer. Nope. Lots of them are women, minorities themselves, reasonably well credentialed, and living in the Cleveland and Philadelphia suburbs.

How can this be? This can be because not all bigots are alike; they are not all driven by the same concerns, the same psychological impulses, or the same value sets. (This is not to say that they aren’t all deplorable, which The Laughing Chimps believe they most assuredly are.)

To present this material in bite-sized, digestible pieces, let’s indulge the impulse to simplify and categorize. We can revisit, rehash, and delve deeper in later posts. But for now, suffice to say that bigotry comes in three varieties or species. Each species of bigotry is driven by its own values and is marked by its own set of beliefs (and beliefs, of course, are the fungus-like outgrowths of the values that feed them). We’ll break down the three kinds of bigotry by reference to their respective belief systems and work backwards from there to the driving forces and values that create them.

  1. Bigotry as the belief that ‘The Other’ is INFERIOR.

Racism is the archetype of this kind of bigotry. And this is probably what most of us see as your garden-variety bigotry. That’s because it marks the most common species of bigotry in American lore, and it is a driving force behind discrimination against African Americans and Hispanics (although, as we’ll see in future posts, it’s not the only driving force).

When we look at the historical practices that gave rise to two cases – Plessey v Ferguson and Brown v Board – we see the beliefs among bigots that ethnic minorities, and especially African Americans, were not just unfit to share with white people the same railroad cars or schools (or drinking fountains or lunch counters), but also that ethnic minorities were unclean and even uncivilized.

This must be a nice feeling for bigots of this stripe – the belief that they (bigots) are better and chosen and superior. If your life is especially pathetic and debased and without any purpose, then the message or narrative that you are at least better than THEM (‘The Other’) must have the allure of catnip.

The driving force behind this species of bigotry is SOCIAL ORDER. You must know your place in the pecking order and strictly adhere to your role. You must know who is your superior and you must, above all, submit.

What value is lurking beneath this kind of belief system? Believe it or not, the value is JUSTICE (or the bigot’s version thereof). Because nothing could be more UNJUST than a person (or group) that is LESSER THAN nonetheless having JUST AS MUCH. Adherents to these beliefs see any power given to or exercised by ‘The Other’ as INJUSTICE.

For this kind of bigot, the way to address the “problem” is to HOLD THE OTHER DOWN.

Want an example of someone who personifies this kind of bigotry? Try Jeff Sessions, the unreconstructed racist soon to be Attorney General of the United States.

A brief review of material that will occupy an entire blog post in coming days: These bigots believe that others are INFERIOR and that giving them power is UNJUST. Is there any way to appeal to the value of JUSTICE in such a way as to rip the bigot away from his or her marriage to bigotry? We think there might be. That’s what we’re thinking about, and that’s why we’re here.

  1. Bigotry as the belief that ‘The Other’ is DIFFERENT AND STRANGE (and maybe too close to home).

Homophobia is the archetype of this kind of bigotry.

When we look at the historical practices that gave rise to several cases – Lawrence v Texas and Romer v Evans and US v Windsor and Obergefell v Hodges – we see the belief among bigots that LGBT Americans are outside the mainstream and disgusting in their behaviors and, just maybe, a little too representative of practices and inclinations that are widespread but also shameful to the point of requiring that they and the impulses to indulge them must be concealed and repressed.

The driving force behind this species of bigotry is TRIBALISM. You must not threaten the status quo or make others question their identities. To avoid causing discomfort or questioning, you must, above all else, conform.

The value lurking beneath this kind of belief system is TRADITION (or the bigot’s version thereof). And nothing could be more a threat to tradition than a person (or group) that is DIFFERENT AND STRANGE nonetheless being ACCEPTED BY THE TRIBE. Adherents to these beliefs see any power given to or exercised by ‘The Other’ as EROSION of the sort that evokes ANXIETY.

For this kind of bigot, the way to address the “problem” is to KEEP THE OTHER OUT.

Want an example of someone who personifies this kind of bigotry? Try Mike Pence, the soon-to-be Vice President of the United States.

A brief review of material that will occupy an entire blog post in coming days: These bigots believe that others are DIFFERENT AND STRANGE and that giving them power is EROSIVE. Is there any way to appeal to the value of TRADITION in such a way as to rip the bigot away from his or her marriage to bigotry? Again, we think there might be. And again, that’s what we’re thinking about, and that’s why we’re here.

  1. Bigotry as the belief that ‘The Other’ is DANGEROUS AND VIRAL.

The archetype of this kind of bigotry is anti-Semitism.

The driving force behind this species of bigotry is SURVIVAL. ‘The Other’ is seen not as someone who is inferior or who is strange, but as someone who is an EXISTENTIAL THREAT. ‘The Other’ is someone who INFECTS the body politic and, although in the minority, wields DISPROPORTIONATE POWER. (Incidentally, although this is the classic argument made against Jews by anti-Semites, it’s also the argument made against gays by conservatives on the Supreme Court.) If you’re a minority facing this species of bigotry, you’re not just an unclean minority to be oppressed or an outsider to be excluded, but a PROBLEM to be SOLVED. In this sense, given the obvious historical precedents, we might say that this kind of bigotry is, if not the worst, at least the most dangerous. Its natural outcome is too often genocide.

The value lurking beneath this kind of belief system is CONTROL (or the bigot’s version thereof). The threat the bigot perceives is that ‘The Other’ is an invasive force that has the power or the cleverness to overcome the defenses of the ‘host.’ This is indeed a host-parasite paradigm where the bigot perceives himself as host and ‘The Other’ as parasite. And what does anyone who is infected crave more than the sense — elusive as it might be — that he or she can manage and control the infection and, eventually, get rid of it.

For this kind of bigot, the way to address the “problem” is to GET RID OF THE OTHER.

Want an example of someone who personifies this kind of bigotry? Try Steve Bannon, the rabid anti-Semite and all-around bigot who will serve as President Trump’s chief political strategist. (Hermann Goering comes to mind.)

A brief review of material that will occupy an entire blog post in coming days: These bigots believe that others are DANGEROUS and that their possession or exercise of power is AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT. Is there any way to appeal to the value of CONTROL in such a way as to rip the bigot away from his or her marriage to this kind of bigotry? We think there might be. Yet again, that’s what we’re thinking about, and yet again, that’s why we’re here.

STAY TUNED.

A handy chart for future reference:

BELIEF DRIVING FORCE VALUE THREAT POSED MEANS TO ADDRESS
Minorities are INFERIOR Social Order Justice Equality = Injustice Oppress
Minorities are DIFFERENT Tribalism Tradition Erosion Exclude
Minorities are DANGEROUS Survival Control Existential Eliminate