Hate is Not a Prerequisite for Bigotry

Note: This entry emphatically subject to the privilege disclaimer.

This is something I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time. It applies not just to racism, but bigotry in general. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc, etc. This addresses “I’m not a racist/sexist/homophobe, but…”.

So many people, in arguments about bigotry, use the fact that they don’t actively, consciously hate the people they’re being bigoted against as evidence that they are not bigoted, as though that sets them apart. It doesn’t.

Let’s rewind the clock a bit. In 1851, a man by the name of Samuel Cartwright wrote about a mental disorder he called “drapetomania”. Drapetomania was a mental disorder symptomized by wanting to flee your master if you were a slave. This guy apparently believed that not wanting to be a slave was a full-on mental disorder.

The question I want to ask is this: does this make that man a bigot? Does it make him racist?

Because here’s the thing: it’s entirely possible that he genuinely believed this to be true. It’s entirely possible that his beliefs about black people were so woefully at odds with reality that he genuinely believed their natural state was slavery. It’s possible he believed that wanting to escape slavery was a form of insanity.

I presume we all think he was wrong. Here’s the thing, though: if he genuinely believed this, he could’ve prefaced a talk about this “disorder” with “I’m not a racist, but…”. He could’ve genuinely not held (or at least not thought he held) an active, conscious hatred toward black people, just a collection of beliefs so incredibly misguided and wrong that they caused him to act in a way that was indistinguishable from hatred. He might’ve said, “I don’t hate blacks, I just want to protect them from the consequences of their own disordered thinking”, and genuinely thought he was telling the truth. Obviously, however, that wouldn’t make the position he was taking any less inherently harmful.

Plenty of people today argue that homosexuality is a disorder, and that by discouraging homosexual activity, they are “hating the sin, but loving the sinner”. My question to you, dear readers, is this: is there a categorical* difference between the kinds of things those people are saying and what Samuel Cartwright said? If Samuel Cartwright genuinely believed that wanting to escape slavery was a symptom of a mental disorder, could he not have argued along similar lines, that he was “Hating the sin, but loving the sinner” by preventing slaves from escaping, by treating them for a disorder he believed they had?

Plenty of the police officers who so preferentially go after minorities may genuinely believe that they are going after people most likely to commit crimes. What is the difference between those people and Samuel Cartwright?

Plenty of people argue that they don’t hate women, they just think that if she was wearing a short skirt or drunk or talked about sex, she was asking for it. What is the difference between those people and Samuel Cartwright?

In all of these cases, people are merely acting on their own beliefs about the world. Samuel Cartwright didn’t say, “I hate blacks, therefore they should be slaves”, he said he thought that slavery was the natural order of things, and that wanting to pervert that natural order by fleeing was akin to being not-right-in-the-head. He had a belief that caused him to do things that were destructive and immoral by any metric. But it’s possible that he, himself, believed it. It’s possible he thought he was “Just keeping it real”.

If you think that he was being racist when he talked seriously about drapetomania, then you acknowledge that problematic beliefs on their own, qualify as bigotry. Whether or not the person who holds false beliefs actively, consciously hates the group of people those beliefs are about, they can still qualify as bigots. This means that when you talk about homosexuality being immoral or women being at fault for dressing sexy or how women or people of color probably earn less because they just can’t do the jobs as well, etc, etc, you don’t have to hate those people to qualify as being prejudiced against them. All you have to be is wrong.

If you’re wrong, the difference between you and Samuel Cartwright is a difference of degree, and that’s all.


* I want to emphasize that I’m talking about categorical differences. I do not intend any of the examples in this post to imply that the things I’m drawing analogies between are equally bad. Only that they are the same type of bad. The type that involves doing harmful things based on harmful beliefs even where possibly independent of active, conscious hatred.

9 comments on “Hate is Not a Prerequisite for Bigotry

  1. When a person denies being a racist (or having any other sort of prejudice) my usual question is whether or not the person advances ideas that would be harmful to members of the group in question. Right now, homosexuality works well with this sort of test: the person denies hating homosexuals, but wants to deny them the right to marry the partner of their choosing, or believes that their orientation ought to be regarded as a mental illness. Both are harmful to homosexuals.

    It kind of seems a lot like when people prefer to be judged by their intentions rather than their actions, but the actions really should count more. If your actions and words harm a group, you are displaying prejudice against them.

      • Perhaps another reason I think this way is that I did research on racist/sexist thinking. Regrettably, racist and sexist and homophobic thinking affects us even when we realize it’s irrational or when we don’t believe the stereotypes; we just aren’t conscious of its influence. It’s this reason I think saying “I am not a racist” or whatever is absurd, it’s like claiming to have found a way, in a society shaped by prejudice, to be totally unaffected by it.

        A better phrase people should say is “I don’t want to be a racist, sexist,homophobe etc.” though a statement like that requires that one is open to feedback on whether you *are* prejudiced, in what way and what you should do to change. People who oppose gay rights can’t say “I don’t want to be prejudiced against gay people” because if they did, they’re inviting gay people to express an opinion. Their only honest recourse is to admit that they want to be bigots.

        • Agreed. I know for my part once I realized that racism was like that, and how subtle it could be, I started catching myself thinking things that were racist all the time. Still do, though I like to think the awareness has some impact on reducing the amount that it happens.

          In a weird way, racism is just another of the many things that we reflexively think of in binary terms where the reality is much more complex. Like gender, sexual orientation, etc.

  2. Hatred is not the prerequisite, I think it ignorance that is the prerequisite. When you don’t bother to try to see the world from the perspective of what you are judging. If Cartwright had done enough open minded research and stuck to the scientific method, he could never have stuck to that diagnosis. Ignorance, especially of the willful kind is the fertile soil that nourishes bigotry, and given enough passion, hatred too.

    • Definitely agree. I just find it so tiring when people who are accused of saying bigoted things defend themselves by saying, “I’m not a bigoted against X, I don’t hate X, some of my best friends are X”, or some such, which was mainly the impetus for writing this.

      • The “some of my best friends are X” line is particularly interesting to me. I wonder if those “best friends” are aware that their comrade is so disparaging of them. I doubt that very much. If they are, I wonder if they are really the close friends the bigot thinks they are.

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