Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Last Gasps of Reactionary Bigotry?

Birgitt Peterson demonstrates a Nazi salute outside a Trump rally in Chicago (photo credit and story:

Are we in the midst of the last gasps of reactionary bigotry?  I believe the answer is a qualified “yes.”  I don’t know to what extent my belief is based on evidence and to what extent on hope, yet my belief persists.  Allow me to explain.

Reactionary Bigotry?

First of all, what do I mean by “reactionary bigotry”?  It is a reaction to the increasing visibility and influence of people who have until recently had little visibility or influence in popular culture, politics, business, education, and other areas of society.  That’s the reactionary part.  The bigotry part is the idea that people unlike oneself in some way (race, gender, sexuality, entertainment preferences, or whatever) are somehow of a less important kind of human, that “we” are better than “them.”  Another way of putting it: Bigots believe there are types of people from whom they have nothing to learn.  

Here are a just a few recent representative examples of things fueled in large part by reactionary bigotry: Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, xenophobic Brexit supporters, some Tea Partiers’ thinly veiled racism toward President Obama, Men’s Rights Activists, the Sad and Rabid Puppies, Gamergate, etc.  Such movements sometimes have violent effects from fights at Trump rallies to mass shootings in Charleston and Orlando.

Let me quickly answer the predictable objection that I am a bigot toward bigots or intolerant of intolerance or whatever.  Many fundamentally decent people have espoused bigoted ideas.  They’re not a lower level of human being than I am, they are merely mistaken, and perhaps we can learn from each other.

On Being a White Guy

One way to understand this phenomenon is to understand white guys, especially straight, cisgender white guys.  I happen to be one of those, so maybe I can provide some insight.  From here on, I will use “white guys” as short hand for “straight cisgender white men.”  Of course, I don’t mean that white guys are single-handedly responsible for all reactionary bigotry, but we are responsible for an awful lot of it.  Analyses of other sources of reactionary bigotry would be worthwhile, but I won’t provide them here.

The main thing about being a white guy is that you are told your entire life that you are a singular authority on just about everything.  You’re not often told explicitly.  It’s that most of the other contemporary and historical authorities you encounter are also white guys.  White guys are probably also most of your favorite authors, directors, actors, business leaders, political heroes, and college professors (especially if you study something like physics or philosophy).  And it gets even better because almost everyone else, whether they are white guys or not, assumes that you are an authority.  As a college teacher I walk into my classroom on day one with authority automatically granted by the students, a luxury my colleagues who are women and people of color do not have.  That most of this is unconscious makes its effects no less real.

“But wait a minute,” many of my fellow white guys will say, “if it’s unconscious how can you really be sure that it’s real?  Couldn’t it all be in the minds of your colleagues?”  And here is where white guys’ authority is most effectively exercised: the authority to discount the experiences of people who are not white guys, to decide whose experiences are real and whose are not.  Of course, it’s possible – in roughly the same sense it’s possible we’re all in the Matrix – that it’s all a giant hoax perpetrated to make white guys feel bad.  But then it would be all about us.  The whole point of listening to other people’s experiences is that it’s not about us.  Why should we get to say what other people’s experiences are?  Why do we think it’s our right to discount these experiences as the products of people who are too sensitive, too angry, or too irrational to grasp white guys’ objective experience of noumenal reality just as it is?  Why does our experience trump everyone else’s?

The Sources of Reactionary Bigotry

These are difficult questions for people who are assumed to be authorities on all things.  It’s hard for me, too.  I don’t say this to make people feel sorry for me.  We white guys still have it pretty easy.  If the hardest thing we have to do is to learn how to listen to our fellow human beings from within our little bubbles of authority (as opposed to daily struggles with institutional racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.), our lives are, as John Scalzi points out, like video games on the easy setting.

For white guys prone to reactionary bigotry, the problem is this: we are now being asked to give up some of our authority.  We are seeing the disintegration of our assumed right to say for everyone what’s true and good.  The panic this disintegration induces is some of what accounts for everything from Donald Trump and xenophobic Brexit supporters who rail against the immigrant hordes to Sad Puppies and Gamergaters (i.e. EWDADs - Entitled White Dudes Against Diversity) who complain that SJWs are making everything political at the expense of good clean white guy fun.

The Last Gasps?

So why do I think we are experiencing the last gasps of reactionary bigotry?  Doesn’t it seem stronger and louder than ever?  Certainly my claim seems odd in the year when an explicitly racist, xenophobic blowhard is the Presidential nominee of a major US political party.

Reactionary bigotry will probably always be with us in some form.  There are Neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers and people who think that American slavery was justified.  I have long suspected that it is a general truth that nothing is so absurd that someone won’t believe it (if you don’t believe me, check out the Flat Earth Society).  But there are signs that reactionary bigotry may not be so prevalent for long.

First, there are demographic trends, especially in the United States.  Within the next few decades, so-called “minorities” will no longer be minorities, which is already true in "minority majority" states (New Mexico, California, Hawaii, and Texas).  While the numbers don’t necessarily translate directly to political, social, or artistic capital, there are signs that these demographic shifts will radically reshape the US.

Second, while it is unclear that having diverse leaders always translates into direct economic or political change, there are deeper psychological effects of having leaders such as the current African American President of the United States (and perhaps soon a woman President).  The same goes for media representation.  If seeing all those white guys in positions of authority is part of what gives us white guys the idea that we are authorities, perhaps the same can be said for other kinds of people.  The more this happens, the more bigotry will flare up, but this also means that the mechanisms by which authority is represented and created will change.

Third, while the rise of explicitly stated racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc. is horrific, there’s also something healthy about dragging our demons out from the shadows, especially since this has elicited vociferous reactions.  Trump says terrible things, but a lot of people are protesting and speaking out against him, even many Republicans (including conservative columnist, George Will, who recently left the party).  Consider the difference in the kinds of responses of polite straight society to the massacres in gay bars in New Orleans in 1973 and Orlando in 2016. 

It’s not that people are thinking hateful things for the first time.  Here's my hypothesis: under the threat of the disintegration of previously presumed authority, people with these views feel emboldened to do what they see as striking back against the coming of a world they can no longer presume to understand and control.  I imagine part of them knows that the days in which bigoted views are respectable are numbered, if not gone already; today's reactionary bigotry is a last stand, a boldness born of despair.

The fact that some of this is mixed with completely justified economic resentment is a point where we can learn from people defending reactionary bigotry.  Some such people are incurable bigots and will be with us for a long time (I can’t imagine that Rabid Puppy founder Vox Day will renounce his views anytime soon).  Some will, of course, not be with us much longer, if one considers the somewhat older average age of Trump or Brexit supporters. 

Evidence and/or Hope for the Future

But I do believe – or perhaps this is more of a hope – that many current supporters of reactionary bigotry will eventually come to see that a more diverse, equitable world is not a threat, but a benefit for all of us.  Concentrating authority in one kind of person is bad for everyone else, but it’s also bad for those with the authority.  It closes us off from our fellow human beings both as moral equals and as sources of inspiration and knowledge; it also gives us an inflated sense of our own importance as the standard by which all things ought to be measured, which is a delusional and unhealthy narcissism (e.g., Donald Trump).

I don’t mean that we should expect a world of puppy dogs and rainbows anytime soon. The current storm of reactionary bigotry may last another decade or more.  This is something that should terrify us and we should fight against it, but there are reasons to hope it will not last forever.  If anything, the current ferocity of this storm is a sign that it will exhaust itself eventually.  And we’ll all be better for it.  Even white guys.


  1. Additional thought: The current resurgence of reactionary bigotry is like that horror movie trope where everyone thinks the bad guy is dead and then he jumps up and tries to kill everybody in the last minute of the movie.

  2. Another interesting article on Trump rallies as "safe spaces":

  3. Ethan: Astute observations. Even your time frame sounds plausible: 10+ years before a majority of the socially privileged get sufficient awareness of their representative biases. For starters, people need to see the documentary "13th" to see a basic connect-the-dots generational pattern of bigotry. After that, I'd recommend the outstanding and all-factual "White Rage" by Prof. Carol Anderson. Further clarification on your photo:

    1. Thanks for the comment and the recommendations. I'll check out 13th and White Rage.