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There is, sadly, far too much of bigotry today.

The Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines a bigot as “one obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his own opinions and prejudices.” The way we usually use the word, however, is more negative. It encompasses strong antipathy and hatred; a bigoted person is someone who targets another group for malicious treatment for no reason other than unreasoning hatred.

It is not a fair accusation to level against others just because we disagree with them, because the reality it describes is serious and ugly.

In the story of the boy who cried wolf, the repetition of a false warning cheapened the warning so that when it was needed, it was disregarded. That is a risk with the way many people use the accusation of bigotry today.

There clearly is bigotry in the world, malign and terrible, as evidenced in the plight of refugees, violent attacks, verbal threats in the political realm, etc.

There are also differences of opinion. Conflating the two is a serious problem.

Take the recent attacks by big businesses and entertainers* on states like North Carolina and Mississippi for passing laws that prevent use of sex-specific restrooms by persons of the other sex (North Carolina) or forbid government retaliation against religious organizations and people of faith for decisions they make based on traditional understandings of marriage and sexual morality (Mississippi).

These businesses (for reasons of belief or to win favor with government regulators) and the advocacy groups organizing this opposition are not expressing disagreement with the policies. Perhaps they could argue that the states should work for a compromise that provides concessions to different interests (as Utah did in 2015), but that’s not the argument. Indeed, there doesn’t really appear to be an argument, just accusations and threats of economic retribution.

The way these groups talk about the laws include accusations that the state is giving a license to discriminate, or suggestions that people of faith seeking protection for their faith-based decisions are “using” their religion as an excuse to discriminate. Sometimes, the epithet of “bigotry” is explicitly invoked.

But this is unfair. Whatever the wisdom of the precise approach, an accusation of bigotry, backed by economic threats to the livelihoods of people in those states, does nothing to advance mutual accommodation and fairness. Instead, they inflame feelings and reinforce the sense that religious liberty is being attacked.

They also complicate national and international efforts to expose and eradicate real bigotry, rather than policy disagreements. This is a heavy price to pay for the satisfaction of a desire to demonstrate moral superiority.

 

*It is funny, in a way, that pornographers (among others) are threatening to stop doing business in these states, since such threats seem more like an incentive to enact such laws than to repeal them.

William C. Duncan, J.D., is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society.