Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrat Party, has recently received much criticism when his office mistakenly published the text of a speech he was to deliver which touched on the issue of marriage rights for gay and lesbian people (in the UK gay people can enter into a civil partnership which confers most of the legal benefits of marriage, but cannot get married). The text contained the following line:
“continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we “postpone” the equalities agenda”
The use of the term “bigot” to describe some opponents of marriage equality sent the UK press into a frenzy. The Daily Mail , presumably starved for substantive news, ran with the headline “FURY OVER CLEGG ‘BIGOT’ SLUR ON GAY MARRIAGE OPPONENTS”, describing the quoted line as “incendiary”. They reported former Archbishop of Canterbury (and prominent opponent of equality for gay people) saying:
“There will be many Christians and non-Christians who will be highly offended to be called bigots. People who oppose same-sex marriages are doing so on the basis of deeply-held beliefs and should and we should not be treated in such a way.”
Not content with this coverage, the Daily Mail continued the next day with an opinion piece by columnist Stephen Glover, which declared Clegg “the real bigot”, calling the stance taken in his speech “arrogant” and “intolerant”. He, too, defended the wounded pride of religious dignitaries, saying:
“His draft speech must have offended Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, Dr George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Scotland’s Roman Catholic leader, all of whom have opposed gay marriage. For those attitudes run counter to what the hierarchies of the Roman Catholic Church and Church of England have said. Bigots all? In Mr Clegg’s view, they would appear to be.”
Clegg, for his part, immediately retracted the speech, replacing the term “bigots” with “some people”. “Bigot”, apparently, is a word that he “would never use”.
Why not, Mr. Clegg? If there ever was a time to use the term “bigot” surely it is now, when a gruesome array of religious antiques have shown unexpected vitality in mounting an ugly campaign against equality on British shores. According to Glover, the “dictionary defines ‘bigot’ as ‘someone unreasonably and intolerantly devoted to a particular creed, system or party’”. Isn’t this a perfect description of those who believe that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married?
Their opposition to equality is unreasonable, based as it is in either a) religious arguments which should have no force in a secular public square or b) confused understandings of the nature of civil marriage, which assert wrongly and unreasonably that the ability to have children is essential to marriage, or that “male female complimentarity” is essential to raising children (false). Opposition to the full equality of your fellow citizens because of who they fall in love with is manifestly intolerant, especially since enabling them to marry has absolutely no significant effect on anyone except the gay couples themselves. And those who campaign on this issue are certainly devoted to the current unfair system: the current campaign against equality, orchestrated largely by religious leaders and groups, has been one of the most vigorous expressions of religious belief in the British political sphere I can remember in my lifetime.
“Bigot”, on the face of it, seems to be an apt description for people who take the view that gay people do not deserve equal treatment in society. So why the backlash and the backpedaling? Essentially, it’s an attempt by the powerful to control the discourse so that they can maintain their privileged position. By declaring words like “bigot” – which is a term of disparagement and moral disapproval, certainly, but which is not a “slur” in the modern sense of the word – out of bounds, powerful people who support the status-quo shield themselves from legitimate moral criticism, presenting themselves not as morally-compromised individuals supporting a system of injustice which effects people’s lives but as reasonable people who are engaged simply in polite disagreement over an abstract ethical issue, or who are defending their deepest principles which should be shielded from criticism.
Note the language Lord Carey uses to describe his outrage: “people who oppose same-sex marriages are doing so on the basis of deeply-held beliefs and should and we should not be treated in such a way” (emphasis mine). The suggestion seems to be that because a belief is “deeply-held” it should not be subject to the sort of moral opprobrium a word like “bigot” implies. Of course it is possible that a “deeply-held belief” can also be a symptom of bigotry, and it is essential that we maintain the ability to criticize and challenge, with morally-loaded terms like “bigot”, deeply-held beliefs which deny the equal dignity of all people.
Further troubling is the suggestion, in Glover’s piece, that religious leaders – seemingly purely by dint of their being religious leaders – cannot possibly be bigots. “Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, Dr George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Scotland’s Roman Catholic leader…Bigots all?” Well, yes. Why not? Why this mock shock at the idea that a former Archbishop of Canterbury and a Cardinal might be a bigot? These are people who have been profoundly and unreasonably devoted to systems and ideologies which intolerantly demean women, children, and gay people for many generations.
By branding “bigot” an unacceptable slur which must not be used against political opponents, those opposing full equality for gay people are attempting to further disempower advocates of equality by removing the language of moral disgust from their persuasive repertoire. It’s a disturbing trend, which leads to a topsy-turvy world in which equality-advocates expressing their objection to unreasonable defenses of inequality are criticized as “judgmental” and “intolerant” when in fact they are fighting intolerance.
In the USA gay rights activists are routinely (and absurdly) described as “intolerant, judgmental bullies” for daring to call attention to the terrible things some organizations do and say about gay people. It would be a shame and a danger if political discourse in the UK were to take such a sinister turn. Our public discourse around values must be open to morally-loaded words like “bigot”, when appropriately used to describe people – Like Lord Carey – who hold unreasonable and intolerant views.
A message, then, to Lord Carey and other opponents of my equality: if you don’t like being called a bigot, don’t try to control my language – change your mind.