There was some (small) buzz a few weeks ago over Morgan Freeman repeatedly using the word “bigot” on his TV show (“Into the Wormhole” on the Science Channel). The attention largely focused on the statement “Are we all bigots?” and the suggestion that all humans are somehow inherently hardwired to be bigoted.
My immediate thought was “well, that’s a good way to get attention and possibly ratings” — by saying something provocative and charged about race at a moment when race issues are at the front of the public’s consciousness. It’s safe to assume that Science Channel’s viewer demographic is slightly older (available data show that a plurality of its audience is in the 35-54 range), male (68%) and probably whiter, so a comment like this might attract more attention than in other outlets. This is also their top-rated show.
But my second thought was…”hey, wait a minute: he’s not using ‘bigot‘ correctly. I can accept that all humans discriminate or have biases or just aren’t very nice people. But to claim outright bigotry is something else entirely.” Bigot, as I’ve always known it to be used, implies a deep and ingrained and, to some extent, especially vitriolic and arbitrary form of racism. I can, at times, be swayed by the argument that “everyone is racist” (as one moderately famous writer I know insists). But I’m not ready to concede that ‘we are all bigots.’
Let’s not be too quick to judge: perhaps I had the definition wrong. Let’s check. Here’s the OED (summarized and paraphrased):
bigot: a person who adheres unreasonably or obstinately to a particular religious belief; a fanatical believer; a person characterized by obstinate, intolerant, or strongly partisan beliefs (obsolete definitions include: a religious hypocrite).
As to be expected, Merriam-Webster and American Heritage concur. (American Heritage has the best etymology on this one, an entertaining walk through speculative origins.) Critical parts of the definition are fanatical, obstinate, and intolerant. A bigot is not simply biased or prejudiced (in the strict sense of the word). A bigot does not recognize middle ground. You are with him, or you are against him.
That settles it as far as I’m concerned: bigot is the wrong word for the job here (sorry Mr. Freeman). Bigot is strong and unyielding: there are no casual bigots, and you can’t be ‘just a little bigoted.’ Bigot is an Archie Bunker word. It’s a southern plantation word. It’s an apartheid word.
So what are some better words to use? If bigot is too strong and should, like a gun at a knife fight, only be unholstered when things have passed a critical point, are there other words that can be used with less concern? What are some terms that aren’t as strong, or that don’t raise political specters?
A few words easily lend themselves: Prejudiced. Biased. Discriminatory. Even racist (although I’d be very careful about the context with that one). “Jaundiced” crossed my mind as a possibility, but no online thesaurus offered it. They should: it means “evidencing envy, prejudice, or hostility” (emphasis mine). The thesauruses offer other useful words, although they vary in shades of meaning and strength: extremist, fanatic, maniac, and zealot are all very strong. Chauvinist, racialist (a word I’ve been meaning to write a full post on), nationalist, and jingoist are strong, but also too specific in many cases. Partisan lends itself best to political use. Enthusiast and opinionated person are both mild (and could be confused with other meanings). “Superpatriot” had not been on my radar, but most thesauruses suggest it (something of a disconnect, since no major dictionary includes it).
I’ve heard people say things like “I’m not racist, I’m just bigoted” more than once. The first few times, I assumed it was meant humorously — as a kind of sarcastic or ironic statement not to be taken seriously but at the same time meant to be taken very seriously: this statement, dropped at the right time, in the right context, with the right audience, can absolutely skewer the kind of person who insists there’s no racism, or that white privilege is a myth. But I’ve since encountered this statement used in total earnestness by people who seem to have extremely deep confusion about what racism and bigotry are and who somehow take pride in labeling themselves as not one but the other (while in most cases their own words condemn them as both).
In the end, Morgan Freeman’s script writers had this wrong. Very wrong (unless all they were after was some quick media buzz). We all have our biases and prejudices, but we’re not all bigots. Some of us are. Some of us revel in their status as bigots. But the rest of us are open to change. This isn’t simple opinion: history shows it to be true, otherwise we’d still be living in caves and we could forget about a world culture built largely on Christianity and Islam — the first pagans to develop an organized religion would have been too bigoted to allow any other to develop, ever.
We should all continue to move farther and farther away from bigotry, and we should save this word, like so many others, to use when we really mean it. Bigot is too strong a concept to be lost to sloppy use. When you encounter a true bigot, you need to have a label that sticks, with all the unpleasant baggage it deserves.
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If you’re interested in viewing the original source, look here. Note that even in this short article, Freeman and others back away a bit from using bigot so casually, at the same time that they toss around numerous less inflammatory terms. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the actual episode; any readers who feel that I’ve mischaracterized the sloppy use of this word are welcome to provide counterexamples.