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  • Writer's pictureJessica Jaymes Purdy

Protecting the Vulnerable vs. Prejudice: When Appeals to Safety Cloak Bigotry

How Words Can Conceal and Enable Harm: Article 7

The word bigotry behind illegible condensed white chiller text that contains a number of anti-trans and LGBTQ+ quotes about bathrooms, locker rooms, women's sports, and women's spaces. Over top that is chiller text that says protect women and children.
Purposfully illegible text of anti-trans quotes overtop of the word bigotry.

One of the most poisonous ways that minimizing language is used to excuse prejudice is by framing it as a matter of "protecting" people, particularly women and children. This rhetoric suggests that policies and practices which harm marginalized groups are actually well-intentioned efforts to keep the vulnerable safe. But in reality, this language masks the ugly truth of bigotry and reinforces oppressive power dynamics.

Throughout history, prejudice has often masked itself in the language of protection. Jim Crow segregation laws were justified as necessary to protect white women from predatory Black men. The genocide of Indigenous peoples was framed as a mission to save their souls and civilize them. Laws criminalizing LGBTQ+ identities have often been portrayed as essential for protecting children from moral corruption.

In all of these cases, the supposed imperative of protection was used to obscure the reality of systemic oppression. The marginalized groups were painted as dangerous threats rather than vulnerable populations. Their very existence was presented as a risk from which some members of the dominant group needed to be protected.

We are seeing this dynamic playing out again with the efforts to ban transgender people from public restrooms which is once again being framed as a matter of protecting women's privacy and safety, even though there is no evidence that transgender people pose a threat to anyone. On the contrary, transgender people, particularly trans women of color, are the ones who are most frequently targets of harassment and violence.

Similarly, measures to restrict immigration are often presented as critical for national security. Immigrants are painted as potential criminals or terrorists, despite the fact that they are often fleeing violence and instability.

The insidious genius of this language is that it exploits very real and legitimate desires to keep our loved ones safe. By presenting a marginalized group as a threat to the vulnerable, bigots tap into protective instincts. They take our natural care and concern for women and children and twist it into justification for discrimination. They play on stereotypes and stoke fears to convince people that the only way to protect "us" is by oppressing "them." The language of protection is so insidious because it taps into very real and legitimate human concerns for safety. We all want to protect our loved ones from harm. But this rhetoric exploits those impulses while peddling falsehoods about marginalized groups. It hijacks our instinct to care for the vulnerable and twists it into justification for prejudice.

The effects of this rhetoric are especially harmful. First, it minimizes and obscures the realities of bigotry. Presenting prejudice as protection makes it seem more reasonable and justified. It suggests that there are understandable concerns on both sides rather than a clear-cut case of discrimination. It makes challenging oppression seem like an attack on the safety of the vulnerable. The minimization of prejudice through language shifts focus away from the actual harm being done to marginalized people.

At the same time, the language of protection reinforces paternalistic attitudes and power hierarchies. It positions members of the dominant group as benevolent protectors who know what's best. And it casts marginalized people as dangerous threats. The result is that marginalized people are robbed of their agency, humanity, and voices. Bigotry is reframed as a regrettable necessity rather than injustice.

In all of these cases, appeals to protection invert reality. They ask us to believe that the powerful are the true victims, while the vulnerable are the threat. They rely on cynical stereotypes and fearmongering rather than facts. They obscure the actual power dynamics and systems of oppression at play.

What makes this framing so hard to confront is that it preys on discomfort. It forces us to untangle thorny issues of gender identity, race, nationality, religion, and risk. It counts on people's discomfort to shut down hard conversations. Many would prefer to avoid wading into the complexities of identity and power. They'd rather believe a simple story about good guys protecting the helpless from bad guys. Bigotry wrapped in the language of protection provides a comforting escape from harsh realities.

But to build a truly just and equitable world, we must be willing to lean into that discomfort. We must recognize this rhetoric for the cynical and dangerous ploy that it is. We must commit to seeing past our biases and examining our knee-jerk notions of threat and safety. We must be willing to accept hard truths about oppression in order to dismantle it.

When faced with appeals to create protection, we must always ask "who is really being protected here, and from what?" We must demand evidence that substantiates any claim that a marginalized group poses a danger. We must pay attention to whose voices and experiences are being centered and whose are being suppressed. We must name bigotry and prejudice even when it's cloaked in the language of righteousness and protectionism. We must be clear that no one's safety should come at the cost of another's dignity and humanity.

When we accept the framing of protection, we give cover to discrimination. Our acceptance tells others that there is merit to debating whether bigotry is justified for the greater good. It lends credence to the lies and stereotypes underlying these appeals. It obscures the reality that these measures are not about protection at all, but about preserving the hierarchies of power and privilege.

That's why it's so essential to unchain from the realities of prejudice from the language of protection in our discourse. When people claim that a policy that targets and harms marginalized groups is necessary to protect the vulnerable, we must challenge that false equivalence directly. We must make clear that "protection" that comes at the cost those who are already oppressed is not protection at all. It is simply prejudice in disguise.

Of course, this does not mean that concerns for protecting the vulnerable are never valid, or that all accusations of bigotry are equal. There are certainly cases where uncomfortable measures may be necessary to address real and pressing risks to safety. Identifying what distinguishes legitimate protection from mere prejudice requires carefully examining evidence, understanding context, and listening to marginalized voices.

But we cannot allow vague appeals to protection to serve as a smokescreen for the demonization of the oppressed. We must be vigilant in separating real vulnerability from politically constructed threats. We must insist on a clear-eyed assessment of who holds power and who is made vulnerable in every case.

Ultimately, measures which harm the vulnerable can never really be about protection. Actions and policies that perpetuate oppression make everyone less safe. A society which allows discrimination to flourish under the guise of “protection” is not a just or healthy one. Real protection comes through equity, inclusion, and the dismantling of systems of oppression.

It's not easy to confront bigotry when it's couched in the language of concern, but we must find the moral courage to do so. In a truly just society, protecting the vulnerable cannot mean scapegoating and endangering the marginalized. A truly just society that protects the vulnerable requires the dismantling of systems of oppression and ensuring equity so that all people can thrive.

By holding fast to the truth and centering the voices of the oppressed, we can strip away this linguistic cover for hate. In doing so, we take a vital step toward true justice and liberation for all.

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