Some Remarks on Bigotry: An Open Letter to the University Community

Though I was greatly saddened to receive the Provost’s communication of February 6 concerning recent “bias-related incidents” on our campus I can’t say I was surprised, given the noxious climate of our current politics.

The Provost’s statement was for the most part strong and comprehensive, and I look forward to hearing what concrete steps the whole university community can take to make such episodes unheard of on our campus, and to lend comfort to those maltreated in such incidents.

However, I must say that the phrase “bias-related incidents” carries a whiff of unnecessary euphemism.

The word “incident” might suggest any sort of event or happening, some of which cannot be ascribed to any human agent for the purpose of accountability.

The word “bias,” with it long smooth vowels, both phonetically and definitionally elides the violence of what we are attempting to describe. After all, many biases are benign in nature, like preferring one kind of food over another.

Fortunately there are synonyms for these words that perfectly and precisely capture the nature of the kind of transgression under discussion, one of which possesses hard and cutting consonants that convey the viciousness of the offense.

Let us not be afraid to say the words. These are not “bias-related incidents.” These are acts of bigotry.

Bigotry cannot abide those who look differently, speak differently, worship differently, think differently, love differently, live differently, etc.

Bigotry humiliates, intimidates, or physically violates a human person, or desecrates their venerable cultural objects.

Bigotry is the violent rejection of the Other, diversity, complexity.

Bigotry is concretized hate, born of fear out of the seed of ignorance.

There are those in some circles who would at this point accuse me of being an agent of “multiculturalism,” which they consider a malign, distorting force in our universities.

Those who would do so hold a view of the world that presupposes a homogeneity that has somehow been polluted by different cultures, different languages, different systems of beliefs, different kinds of people, etc.

It is precisely this distorted sense of the world that is the source of the bigot’s ignorance.

Anyone who has been exposed to grade school geography should have been able to grasp the vast largeness of the world in all of its diversity. Multiple cultures have not been imposed on the world; the world is, in fact, multicultural.

Moreover, anyone who has been exposed to high school history should have been able to understand that these various cultures are not hermetically sealed away one from another, but instead have been engaged and intertwined in an elaborate dance of meaning for millennia.

Forgetting these elemental lessons is possible only if one belongs to a community of meaning that has separated itself from the Other, from difference, from complexity, from diversity. But in such cases it is this community that has adopted a distorted sense of the world, not those who acknowledge the world’s self-evident diversity.

Bigotry, then, is nothing less than an announcement of one’s rejection of the world as it is.

Any university worthy of the name is a microcosm of the world’s diversity. It is in the university that one can rediscover and encounter the world in all of its vast richness, not only by what is learned in our classrooms but also by studying alongside those who are not like oneself.

Universities, therefore, must be places of tolerance. This means that bigotry can have no place in a university. This, in turn, means that the only permissible intolerance is intolerance of intolerance itself. This is the only virtuous prejudice.

When we expel unrepentant bigots from our midst we should do so with a clear conscience, for it is they who have through their actions already moved to expel themselves from humankind. By assaulting the humanity of their victims they have diminished the humanity in themselves. We must, sadly but firmly, send them away.

February 9, 2020

Published as “Bigotry has no place on campus; expel the unrepentant,” The Varsity News, February 11, 2020.