Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Liberal" Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

There's been an ongoing argument about the meaning of bigotry, focusing recently on some vile things said by the noted liberal actor (and bogeyman of the Right and of South Park) Alec Baldwin.  I've been following at Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog at The Atlantic, so I'll quote some of his quotations.  Baldwin wrote the following to a gay journalist who'd written something he disliked:
George Stark, you lying little bitch. I am gonna fuck you up … I want all of my followers and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch, George Stark. @MailOnline … My wife and I attend a funeral to pay our respects to an old friend, and some toxic Brit writes this fucking trash … If put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck….you….up.
And there's more, much more.  Just one more quotation, though it's more comical than bigoted.  When Baldwin's show on MSNBC was canceled, he responded thusly:
But you've got the fundamentalist wing of gay advocacy—Rich Ferraro and Andrew Sullivan—they're out there, they've got you. Rich Ferraro, this is probably one of his greatest triumphs. They killed my show.
I had to look up Rich Ferraro, who turns out to be a biggie (Vice President of Communications) at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media-watch organization that real queer fundamentalists consider far too easy to get along with.  I do, of course, know who Andrew Sullivan is, and while I have to giggle at how he'd react to being called a "fundamentalist," he doesn't fit Baldwin's description either.  It appears, however that in the same statement, Baldwin admitted, "And I have to take some responsibility for that myself", which shows more self-awareness than I expected, but is probably just empty pro forma "balance."

Read the post I quoted these from if you need more persuading that, supporter of same-sex marriage though he be, Alec Baldwin is a bigoted misogynist homophobic scumbag.  I really can't see why there'd be any disagreement on the question.  But there is.  (By the way, for a pretty overwrought counterattack, try this piece, which rants about "witch hunts," "the militant lobby" and the like.)

Coates has been discussing one persistent defender of Baldwin, a writer named Wes Alwan.  Alwan is very scrupulous about applying the word "bigot" to Baldwin:
These condemnations are grounded in a number of highly implausible theses that amount to a very flimsy moral psychology. The first is the extremely inhumane idea that we ought to make global judgments about people’s characters based on their worst moments, when they are least in control of themselves: that what people do or say when they’re most angry or incited reveals a kind of essential truth about them. The second is that we are to condemn human beings merely for having certain impulses, regardless of their behaviors and beliefs. The third is that people’s darkest and most irrational thoughts and feelings trump their considered beliefs: Baldwin can’t possibly really believe in gay rights, according to Coates, if he has any negative feelings about homosexuality whatsoever. The fourth, implied premise here – one that comes out in the comical comments section following Coates’ post – is that we are to take no account whatsoever of the possibility of psychological conflict. We refuse to allow ourselves to imagine that a single human being might have a whole host of conflicted thoughts and feelings about homosexuality: that they might be both attracted to it and repelled by it....
It is just as ludicrous to condemn people for being afraid of or repulsed by homosexuality as it is to condemn them for having violent impulses.
I believe I've written before that I object to "homophobe" being used as a moral condemnation because of its pseudomedical history and definition: if homophobia is a disease or disorder, as it supposedly is, then its victims are not morally responsible for their condition, any more than a schizophrenic is.  They should, of course, seek treatment.  I do use "homophobe" loosely, to imply that a person has a gut-level aversion to gay people and to homosexuality, but I also stress that homophobia in this sense is not limited to heterosexuals but is very common among gay people.  (That's not a terribly radical notion, it's shared by many Culture of Therapy gay people and allies under the rubric of "internalized homophobia."  Of course all homophobia is "internalized."  I suppose the term is supposed to mean that the subject turns the homophobia inward, on him or herself, but the internalized homophobe seldom stops there.)  For this reason, when I'm in the mood for moral condemnation I prefer to speak of bigotry, but Alwan doesn't like that word either.

But it should be obvious how ludicrous Alwan's defense is.  Baldwin isn't being condemned for having antigay "impulses," but for overt behavior, repeated over a considerable period of time.  As for the "worst moments" defense, Baldwin has evidently had a lot of them.  If they were really bad moments when he wasn't in control of himself and don't reflect his better self, he could apologize, seriously and abjectly (by which I mean, not the usual obviously insincere "apologies" offered up by celebrities for PR purposes), and give his critics reason to believe that he's trying to change his behavior in the future.  Instead Baldwin continues to blame his critics.  That's not going to work.  I can't help thinking that Alwan wouldn't extend the same generosity of spirit to a right-winger accused of homophobia or bigotry or racism, but that's okay -- we have Michael Kinsley to do that.

Additionally, on Alwan's logic no one could ever be condemned for bigotry at all.  The more extreme and irrational a person's opinions, statements, and actions, in fact, the more we would have to invoke the same "dark" mechanisms that produce violent and bigoted "impulses."  Again, I wonder if Alwan is willing to extend the same compassion to illiberal right-wing bigots, or if he reserves it for liberals alone.

Coates wrote again on this topic today, addressing Alwan's latest entry, in which he reaches for a dictionary and argues that "bigot" just doesn't fit.  But as Coates shows, Alwan selects the meaning that suits him, and the word is wide enough to include Alec Baldwin.  Alwan wants "bigot" to mean someone who's "unpersuadable," though Baldwin's reaction to criticism indicates that he's exactly that.  Coates goes on to point out that just as Baldwin is complex, so were many notorious white racists such as Strom Thurmond.  Of course, there's a similar panicky overreaction to calling racists by the proper label.  Alwan complained, as Coates quotes him:
I worried, when I published a long post defending Alec Baldwin against charges of bigotry for calling someone a “cocksucking fag,” that I ran the risk of being seen as defending the indefensible. I knew that if the post got any attention, readers who are unfamiliar with my reputation as a (hardcore) liberal might interpret it as a particularly sophisticated piece of crypto-conservatism or closeted bigotry. And I also worried that friends who know me better might wonder how it is I could possibly make such a defense: my motives would be suspect. Indeed, the point of Coates’ marking a portion of my argument as “bizarre,” “terrible,” and “telling” is to signal – without openly calling me a bigot, a ploy that would be too embarrassingly obvious – the fact that my motives are in question: I’m a white guy defending another white guy, not someone making a principled argument (no matter how wrongheaded) about what I believe to be right. I am, possibly, a closeted bigot, dressing up my bigotry in a sophisticated argument; not, as I intend to be, a self-critiquing liberal who wishes to hold liberals – for the sake of consistency, intellectual honesty, and fairness – to their own liberal principles.
Alwan's tangled up in his own apologetics.  I think it's obvious enough that in defending Baldwin's behavior he is "defending the indefensible."  That doesn't make Alwan a bigot, of course; it makes him an apologist for bigotry.  ("Apologist" means "defender," in the older sense of "apology."  It didn't originally mean saying you're sorry, it means making a defense.  If you read Plato's Apology -- his version of Socrates' defense speech at his trial -- thinking that Socrates told the Athenians he was sorry for corrupting the youth and denying the gods, you're in for a surprise.)   Whether Alwan's "a closeted bigot" I don't know, and I'm not saying he is.  But I don't see that he's a "self-critiquing liberal" either, self-critique appears to be absent from his discourse, along with "consistency, intellectual honesty, and fairness."

I got into this with some other commenters under Coates's earlier post.  Some people were arguing that calling someone is a bigot is a "global" condemnation of the whole person, with the implication that he or she can't change and will always be Evil.  I've run into this claim in past debates, and it always baffles me, because as far as I can tell Baldwin's critics assume that Baldwin could change his behavior if he wanted to, but he clearly doesn't want to.  He didn't claim that his behavior was a "worst moment," he denied that he behaved badly at all.  In that case I see no reason not to call him a bigot, even on Alwan's assumptions.

Another commenter claimed that you only call a person a bigot if you intend to cut off all contact with them.  I don't have any contact with Baldwin in the first place, and I'm not a fan of his work either.  But if I did, I would certainly cut him off and have no contact with him.  On the other hand, I know quite a few bigots, in real life and online, and I don't always cut off all contact with them -- on the contrary, I keep criticizing their attitudes, opinions, and behavior.  My judgment of them as a bigot doesn't assume that they can't change; I assume that they can change their behavior if not their attitudes, and I let them know that if they want to be around me in the future, they had better moderate their rhetoric in my company or I'll give them a hard time for it.  What surprises me, somewhat, is that these fine liberals apparently see criticism and shunning as nuclear options, extreme measures that they would never consider using themselves.  If this is true, and I don't entirely believe them, then I would say it doesn't speak well for them.

In the real world, I have spent (wasted?) a great deal of time patiently debating with bigots of various stripes, explaining to them why I think they're wrong, trying to answer their reasoning and self-justifications.  I don't cut people off impulsively, without a good amount of information about them, though I admit that as I get older and more experienced and can spot a bigot on the horizon, I'm less apt to let such people get near me in the first place.  And some behaviors, such as calling someone a cocksucking fag, set off enough alarms in themselves that I see no reason to withhold judgment on them for very long.  If someone wants to be regarded as a good person, he or she had better refrain from such behavior in the presence of strangers.  And no, being a supporter of gay rights (or civil rights), or having lots of gay (or black) friends doesn't give you a pass on using slurs.

Of course, bigots of various stripes have encouraged this kind of wishy-washyness, by wailing that "The accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life", or that "The word racist is truly hurtful. It’s not who I am. It’s not who I ever was. It’s just not fair. It’s just not right."  There is legitimate debate over just what racism and other types of bigotry are and how they work, but that's not what is going on here.  Rather the aim appears to be to define bigotry as something so monstrous that almost no one can fit the definition.  But the real mystery to me is why liberals are colluding in that endeavor.