Paul Brownsey: ‘Bigot’ is not just a term of abuse, it is based on facts

Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Picture: Greg Macvean
Cardinal Keith O'Brien. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Comments on the Bigot of the Year award to Cardinal Keith O’Brien have tended to proceed as though “bigot” were a mere term of abuse, like swearing.

But “bigot” is not merely a word for expressing abuse. It has a fairly determinate meaning and whether it is applicable or not depends upon the facts of the case.

First, no-one is correctly called a bigot simply for having a view and for expressing it. It would be absurdly false, not just bad manners, for me to label Cardinal O’Brien a bigot simply on the strength of his maintaining that artificial contraception is wrong, even though I may disagree strongly with him about that.

Bigotry has less to do with what a person maintains than with how she maintains it. It seems plausible to say a bigot is someone who maintains a view where some of the following things are true of the way she maintains it: there is no live-and-let-live, no willingness to grant, “I will live by my beliefs and you may live by yours”; she claims privileges of conscience for herself that she is not prepared to allow to others; her adherence to her view dictates her response to evidence or reasoning; she is prepared for manifest harm to afflict people rather than for her to abandon her view; she believes it is, in principle, impossible to learn from the other anything that may require a modification of her own view; she seeks to suppress expression of the contrary view; she vilifies or demonises her opponents; she seizes upon and propagates false or irrelevant statements about them so as to discredit their testimony or evidence; she seeks to have the view that she maintains imposed upon the lives of everyone so far as law or other pressure can be made to do so.

This is not an exhaustive list of relevant criteria. I am not maintaining that just one of these criteria is sufficient to determine that someone is a bigot, but neither need all of them be satisfied for there to be a case of bigotry.

There are certainly religious people who satisfy very few of these criteria, including some Roman Catholics. Whether Cardinal O’Brien satisfies the criteria to an extent that would warrant the label “bigot”, readers may judge.

• Paul Brownsey is a former lecturer in philosophy at the University of Glasgow.