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Words, words, words: Dictionary meaning vs. connotation of “bigot”


I’m a word nerd. Or at least, I took a test once to find out what sort of nerd I am and apparently, I’m a word nerd.
I have been accused of being pedantic, which I can be at times, but most of the time I resent the negative connotations of pedantry. The way I see it, I was raised to value language and its proper uses. I think that accurate use of language and observance of the rules of grammar are important to communicate clearly and avoid confusion.

It’s important to understand context when using certain words, and often common usage differs from the strict dictionary definition. Words have subtle connotative meanings that are rarely captured in a single line.

Two posts ago, I quoted my own use of the word “bigot” which, the way I used it meant someone who is intolerant, ignorant and prejudiced against those who are different. I have always heard it used this way, as a sort of umbrella term for racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-semetic etc.
To refute me, the subject of my post and a commenter (comment was deleted) tried to use the dictionary definition to turn it around on me.

According to the dictionary on my computer:
“bigot: One who is intolerant toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.”

It is true, that if one were to use this definition, I could be construed as bigoted for being intolerant of the opinion that “a transwoman is a man and a man who is attracted to a transwoman is gay” (never mind that that opinion is itself intolerant of the opinions and points of view of those who are transgendered). However, it is beside the point to reduce the word this way and twist the meaning to this use. It amounts to a tu quoque fallacy, and is not very convincing. Can I really be called bigoted for being intolerant of bigotry?

I have come across this kind of refutation on skeptic boards quite often (and even the recent “Pussy Pedant” debate amongst the skeptical ladies’ blogs veered into this category of argument) and I have come to the conclusion that if you quote the dictionary to refute your opponent, you may not understand the word as well as they did. It is likely that there is a connotative meaning that you have missed, and perhaps you should give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is not to say I’ve never refuted someone using a dictionary definition. After all, I don’t think I need to tell you which side of the Pussy Pedant debate I’m on (hint: Team Vulva) and there have been other times I’ve been on the other side of this sort of thing. For instance, I was surprised to discover that in Australia that the word “precocious” has connotations of an obnoxious overachiever which is very different to the meaning  I was raised to understand.

I think I was probably wrong to call my ex-boyfriend a bigot. However, I was not wrong to call his joke into question or to call him out on his ignorant point of view. His actions were bigoted, but when I accused him of being a bigot, it got into all the problems of namecalling rather than addressing the actions themselves. Once I labelled him, it allowed him to use the, “I am not X, I did Y, therefore Y cannot be X,” bad argument (why’s it bad? Hint: there is an unstated major premise).

I also would like to make it clear that I did not remove him from my Facebook friends based on that incident alone. It definitely precipitated it, but he barely made the cut in my last few friend culls. This is not the first time he has said or done something that offended me, and my attempts to educate him or persuade him to change his behaviour have been in vain. This was his last chance to prove me wrong and he failed.

  1. 10/08/2010 3:56 pm

    Unfortunately, you seem to have missed the mark yet again. You are making the issue of transgender into a black and white issue when it is not. That’s bigotry, period. It’s intolerance, period. There is no objective way to determine how people should react to transgendered people. It’s a philosophical and moral issue. There is simply no way you can argue with absolute certainty any position.

    Scientifically, the stronger argument is that chromosomes determine gender and that we don’t see male porcupines “believing” they were born female. I can understand that position just as I can also understand the positions regarding gender self-identification. It’s not black and white, and I’m not going to condemn somebody because they equate homosexuality to being attracted to someone of the same sex (as defined by DNA) even if that person believes they are “really” the other gender.

    There’s enough intolerance in the world.

    • noblecaboose permalink*
      10/08/2010 5:36 pm

      Unfortunately, you have completely missed the point.

      While you cannot necessarily control your reaction, and I don’t claim that there is an “objective way” to react to anything, what I’m talking about here is behaviour. The polite, ethical and appropriate way to behave toward transgendered people is to treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve, i.e. treat them as the gender in which they perceive themselves.

      Scientifically, you are talking about a person’s sex. Besides being a completely different subject, that isn’t even guaranteed by chromosomes, as several people pointed out in the comments thread on that post.
      Porcupines? Seriously?
      You also don’t see porcupines forming complex societies or having philosophical arguments. That comparison makes no sense whatsoever. Transgendered, transexual and intersexed people don’t just “believe” they are a particular gender,(by the way, your use of scare quotes is incredibly patronising and telling) they are that gender. That is the widely accepted definition in the scientific and legal community, whether you agree or not.
      How magnanimous of you to not judge someone for their misunderstanding of the accepted psychological and neurological definitions of gender.
      I can understand that point of view as well, that doesn’t make it any less misinformed, ignorant or intolerant.
      Yes, there’s enough intolerance in the world, you seem to be making sure of that.

      • noblecaboose permalink*
        11/08/2010 8:46 am

        If you define bigotry as simply as the dictionary definition, then yes, I am a bigot for being intolerant of someone’s intolerance. But then, that would make you a bigot as well, for being intolerant of my intolerance of intolerance.

    • 11/08/2010 11:06 am

      Re Porcupines: Please Google “Freemartin”.

      If you don’t see something, it could be because you haven’t looked. While I’m not aware of any studies on porcupines specifically, there’s many on ruminants, rodents, canines, felines etc that show various degrees of neurological intersex in the population. We can reliably induce the symptoms of transsexuality in laboratory animals by hormonal manipulation in the womb.

      Re DNA:
      “A 46,XY mother who developed as a normal woman underwent spontaneous puberty, reached menarche, menstruated regularly, experienced two unassisted pregnancies, and gave birth to a 46,XY daughter with complete gonadal dysgenesis.” — J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2008 Jan;93(1):182-9.

      I *am* “going to condemn somebody because they equate homosexuality to being attracted to someone of the same sex (as defined by DNA) ” if they think this woman is actually a guy. Condemn them as a twit, a flat-earther who doesn’t let mere facts get in the way of their arrogant opinions. I’m also going to condemn anyone who goes along with them as the same.

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