Racism versus “Bigotry”
Tibor R. Machan
In his guest column for The New York Times on Saturday, April 14, 2007, Robert Wright compares the insulting remarks of former radio talk show host Don Imus to the anti-Muslim tirades of conservative columnist Ann Coulter. He appears to be treating these as very much the same kind of thing and concludes that the fault line between blacks and whites won’t be as significant in the future as that between Americans and Muslims. As he put it, “And if anything, I’d say that the second fault line is the more treacherous. America has already done things abroad that are helping to make the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s not make that kind of mistake at home.”
However, when Don Imus insulted the Rutgers University women basketball players, he was uttering what arguably are racial slurs. These are insulting primarily because they attribute character traits to people based on something no one can do anything about, namely, one's membership in a racial group. No one’s race may be rationally held against him or her since anything one cannot make a choice about cannot be morally or otherwise faulted.
In contrast, when Ann Coulter insults radical Muslims, she is uttering what arguably are criticisms or attacks on the self-chosen traits of people of a given faith or viewpoint. Such traits are not something over which individuals can have no choice, so they can be held responsible for them. Such criticisms and verbal attacks are akin to criticizing or attacking Nazis, members of the KKK, Communists, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or Christians. No one is born these but chooses to be a member (at least in his or her adulthood).
So Imus's and Coulter's cases are incomparable. Hostility against radical Muslims as radical Muslims could be misguided but it is of a different category from hostility against blacks as blacks.
Of course, there is a not so hidden controversy beneath the surface here, one that has to do with whether human beings have the freedom to choose their beliefs, their membership in a religious, philosophical, political or other community based on a viewpoint. As a former Roman Catholic, I often hear it said that I cannot depart the faith as a matter of my own free will—I am stuck in it, like it or not. Even citizenship is often regarded something one obtains by virtue of being born in a certain place, although here it is problematic to argue that one cannot shed one’s nationality. Many people switch theirs, as I did mine when I emigrated from Hungary and eventually took up American citizenship by taking an oath before a judge—along with 50 some others—back in 1961 in a court house in Washington, D.C. Yet, some might well argue that here, too, various forces pushed me to become an American citizen and my choice is but an illusion.
Perhaps Mr. Wright is of this outlook and considers one’s religious—or political, ideological, philosophical “membership”—just as unavoidable as one’s membership in a racial or ethnic group. But to argue that issue he would need to do a great deal more than to suggest that Don Imus’s remarks are akin to those of Ann Coulter’s. Because however that issue of choice is ultimately resolved—and it has been an issue since time immemorial—it would be difficult to make it credible that being of a certain race is just like being a member in a religious or political group. That’s because although in today’s technological climate one might conceivably change one’s race and color, that’s more a feature of science fiction than reality, while changes in religious or political affiliation are evident all around us.
And, of course, religious or political (or other) convictions and the ensuing ways of life are open to scrutiny and criticism and can often be rationally attacked. Some call this bigotry but it is only that when done mindlessly, without careful attention to the content of the targeted beliefs. For example, in the book Islamic Imperialism, as in many similar books, the author, Efraim Karsh, finds many objectionable feature of Islam, especially of the radical variety. And, of course, Democrats attack Republicans, libertarians attack socialists, atheists attack theists, all because they find fault with the choice to embrace these religious or political viewpoints.
Mr. Wright was, therefore, wrong in comparing Imus and Coulter. The former did something that’s morally objectionable because he ridiculed people for what they cannot help but be, while the latter has been doing something that could quite easily be justified, attacking a viewpoint no one needs to embrace.