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  • Writer's pictureJessica Jaymes Purdy

Bigotry Isn't Just an Opinion: The Dangers of False Equivalence

How Words Can Conceal and Enable Harm: Article 6


One of the most insidious forms of minimizing language is the characterization of bigoted views as mere "opinions." This framing suggests that hateful, dehumanizing attitudes toward marginalized groups are simply one more perspective in the marketplace of ideas. But to understand why this false equivalence is so dangerous, we have to clearly define the differences between opinions and bigotry.


An opinion is a personal view or judgment a person forms about a particular matter. It is a belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by actual knowledge or proof. While opinions can be informed by facts, they are ultimately subjective interpretations. In many cases, there can be a range of legitimate opinions on a given issue.


Bigotry, on the other hand, goes far beyond a mere opinion. It is based on an obstinate or unreasonable attachment to a belief or opinion. Bigotry stems from prejudice against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group. It is a form of intolerance and discrimination based on group characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability.


The words Bigotry, intolerance, partisanship, and difference of opinion overlaying the definitions of each and getting progressively bigger with difference of opinion being the largest. bigotry intolerance and partisanship are all crossed out. the definitions read:  A difference of opinion is a simple disagreement between people, which is a normal part of human interaction and discourse. It does not necessarily involve any negativity or hostility.  Partisanship involves strong, sometimes blind allegiance to a particular party, cause, or person. While it can lead to an unwillingness to consider other viewpoints, it is not always hateful or discriminatory in nature.  Intolerance involves an unwillingness or refusal to respect or accept people, opinions or beliefs that differ from one's own. It can manifest as prejudice and may lead to discriminatory actions.  Bigotry is the most severe as it combines intolerance and prejudice with hatred and often leads to discrimination, hostility and even violence towards those perceived as being part of certain groups, often based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or other inherent characteristics. Bigotry is fueled by ignorance, fear and a sense of superiority.
A difference of opinion is a simple disagreement between people, which is a normal part of human interaction and discourse. It does not necessarily involve any negativity or hostility. Partisanship involves strong, sometimes blind allegiance to a particular party, cause, or person. While it can lead to an unwillingness to consider other viewpoints, it is not always hateful or discriminatory in nature. Intolerance involves an unwillingness or refusal to respect or accept people, opinions or beliefs that differ from one's own. It can manifest as prejudice and may lead to discriminatory actions. Bigotry is the most severe as it combines intolerance and prejudice with hatred and often leads to discrimination, hostility and even violence towards those perceived as being part of certain groups, often based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or other inherent characteristics. Bigotry is fueled by ignorance, fear and a sense of superiority.

While an opinion is a personal viewpoint, bigotry is a hateful and dehumanizing prejudice. Bigotry ascribes negative characteristics and moral deficiencies to all members of a group, stripping away their individual humanity. It sees them as inherently inferior, flawed or threatening solely based on their identity. Bigoted views often draw on cynical stereotypes and conspiracy theories to paint the targeted group as a menace.


Bigoted attitudes have fueled oppression, discrimination, and violence against marginalized communities throughout history. Espoused bigotry tells people that they are intrinsically less worthy of rights and dignity because of who they are. It undermines the fundamental equality of all people which is the bedrock of just, democratic societies.

When bigotry is allowed to masquerade as opinion, those harms are compounded. The hateful views are normalized and granted an undeserved veneer of legitimacy. The lines between bias-motivated hostility and respectful disagreement are blurred. Bigots feel empowered to express and act on their prejudices more openly. The groups targeted by bigotry face mounting dehumanization with less social sanction.


When bigoted views are brushed off as opinions, it drains the word "bigotry" of its power. It makes intolerance and hate seem more reasonable and acceptable. Suddenly, slurs, stereotypes, and pseudoscientific claims about the inferiority or depravity of marginalized groups become just one more side in a civil debate.


This grants an undeserved veneer of legitimacy to bigotry. It puts hateful views on an equal footing with calls for equality, respect, and human rights. It suggests that there are two morally equivalent "sides," rather than a clear right and wrong. In doing so, it prevents the full social condemnation that expressions of bigotry should rightly face.

Instead of reacting to bigoted statements with outrage and disgust, people start to treat them as reasonable disagreements. The conversation shifts from "how do we confront this intolerance?" to "well, everyone's entitled to their opinion." The fundamental denial of a group's humanity at the heart of bigotry gets papered over.


This minimizing language also puts an unfair and cruel burden on the communities targeted by bigotry. It tells them that the vicious attacks, prejudices, and conspiracy theories aimed at demeaning them are a legitimate part of the discourse. They are expected to graciously agree to disagree with people who are questioning their basic human dignity, rather than calling out bigotry for what it is.


All of this has the effect of shifting the Overton window and allowing bigotry to flourish with less pushback. The Overton window is a way of describing the range of policies or ideas considered acceptable by the mainstream public at a given time. When hateful views are consistently treated as valid opinions, it expands the boundaries of what is considered worth discussing or debating.


Over time, this can normalize bigotry and make space for even more extreme manifestations of intolerance to gain a foothold. Ideas that were once widely condemned as racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted can start to be taken seriously if they are regularly granted the status of respectable opinion. The Overton window shifts, and the unthinkable becomes thinkable.


This process emboldens those with hateful views to express them more openly and frequently, knowing they can cloak their intolerance in the language of civil disagreement. It desensitizes the public to the presence of biases in the discourse. It makes it harder to establish firm social agreements that state clearly expression of bigotry are unacceptable.


Unsurprisingly, it is often those with social privilege and power who are quickest to dismiss bigotry as opinion. For them, the dehumanization of marginalized groups is an abstract issue, not a direct threat to their rights and well-being. They have the luxury of treating inequity as an intellectual exercise.


For the communities that routinely face bigotry, however, the stakes could not be higher. They understand all too well that hateful ideas are never "just" opinions. Those ideas form the basis of exclusion, discrimination, harassment, and violence. They create the backdrop for everything from slurs to denial of human rights.


All of us, but especially journalists and public leaders, have a responsibility to identify and condemn bigotry wherever it appears. We must make clear that intolerance and hate are not simply contrasting opinions to be debated, but assaults on human dignity to be unequivocally rejected. Using clear, direct language to describe bigotry as bigotry is essential.  It’s necessary in order to make clear that bigotry will not be tolerated.

Of course, labeling views as bigoted should not be done frivolously. Accusing someone of bigotry is a serious accusation and should be used thoughtfully based on clear patterns of dehumanizing and hateful speech and conduct, not to malign people we disagree with. Preserving space for good-faith debate, disagreement, and the free exchange of ideas is still necessary.


But when bigotry does manifest, dancing around it with euphemism only drains discourse about it of its power and makes prejudice seem more palatable. Precisely identifying intolerance as intolerance is a way of upholding the values of equality and dignity for all. It's a way of saying: "These particular views cross a hard line. They deny the shared humanity of a group of people. They cannot be treated as reasonable perspectives in our discourse."


If someone tries to cloak their bigotry in the language of opinion, we must be quick to reject this rhetorical sleight of hand. We must respond by centering the voices and lived experiences of the marginalized groups being targeted. They are the ones best equipped to identify bigotry and its harms. Their perspective should take precedence over any misguided calls for open debate.


Identifying bigotry as such is not a violation of free speech. People have a right to express any view, but they are not entitled to have hateful views be treated as respectable opinions in our public discourse. In fact, one could argue that clearly labeling bigotry helps maintain a healthy marketplace of ideas. It establishes the ground rules for what constitutes good-faith, mutually respectful dialogue.

So, while respect for a range of opinions is a hallmark of a free society, hateful bigotry is an exception that cannot be tolerated. We must use the language of right and wrong thoughtfully to defend the equal worth of all people from those who spew hate and bigotry.


The bottom line is that bigotry has no place in a just and inclusive society. Speaking of it as if it is just an opinion is a form of complicity. We must be vigilant in exposing this linguistic cover, so that hate and intolerance have no place to hide. Calling things by their proper names is the first step towards positive change and preventing the Overton window from shifting in a dangerous direction.

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