Special Issue: Trump and the 2016 Election

Trump, Bigotry, and the Ethics of Stigma

by John Corvino 

ABSTRACT. In June 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump infamously argued that U.S. District Court judge Gonzalo Curiel could not preside fairly over the Trump University fraud case. Pointing to his campaign promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Trump alleged that Curiel’s Mexican heritage created “an inherent conflict of interest.” (Judge Curiel was born in Indiana.)

Criticism of Trump’s allegation was swift and widespread. Robert Maldonado, president of the Hispanic Bar Association, stated that “Donald Trump continues to belligerently inject bigotry and divisive politics into the 2016 presidential contest.” Even House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) denounced the allegation, calling it “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Was Trump’s remark bigoted? Were commentators right to label it as such? How does such a label function, and when is it appropriate to apply it? In this essay I explore these questions. While Trump’s comments and their aftermath provide the impetus, my focus is ultimately more general: I am interested in the meaning and use of “bigotry” and its cognates. In Part I, I analyze the concept of bigotry, including its connection to racism, sexism, and other related phenomena. In Part II, I explain how attributions of bigotry function to “stigmatize the stigmatizers” and I discuss ethical and practical considerations concerning such stigma. In Part III, I conclude by very briefly applying these insights to Trump’s remarks, Ryan’s response, and the 2016 U.S Presidential election more generally.


In June 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump infamously argued that U.S. District Court judge Gonzalo Curiel could not preside fairly over the Trump University fraud case. Pointing to his campaign promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Trump alleged that Curiel’s Mexican heritage created “an inherent conflict of interest” and “an absolute conflict” (B. Kendall 2016). (Judge Curiel was born in Indiana.)

Criticism of Trump’s allegation was swift and widespread. Robert Maldonado, president of the Hispanic Bar Association, stated that “Donald Trump continues to belligerently inject bigotry and divisive politics into the 2016 presidential contest, and now it has bled over into his legal troubles” (Gamboa 2016). The criticism even crossed party lines. House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced it: “Claiming a person can’t do the job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable” (Steinhauer, Martin, and Herszenhorn 2016). Yet Ryan maintained his endorsement for candidate (now President) Trump.

Was Trump’s remark bigoted? Were commentators right to label it as such? How does such a label function, and when is it appropriate to apply it? These are the questions I explore in this essay. While Trump’s Curiel comments and their aftermath provide the impetus for these questions, my focus is ultimately more general: I am interested in the meaning and use of “bigotry” and its cognates.

In Part I, I analyze the concept of bigotry, including its connection to racism, sexism, and other related phenomena. In Part II, I explain how attributions of bigotry function to “stigmatize the stigmatizers” and I discuss ethical and practical considerations concerning such stigma. In Part III, I conclude by very briefly applying these insights to Trump’s remarks, Ryan’s response, and the 2016 U.S Presidential election more generally.



Although Ryan referred to Trump’s remarks as “racist,” the label appears somewhat inapt: Mexican heritage constitutes an ethnic identity, not a racial one. On the other hand, there is no term “ethnicism,” and neither “ethnocentrism” nor “xenophobia” quite captures the problem Ryan was disavowing.

Even if we understand “race” broadly enough to include Mexican heritage, questions remain about what precisely makes the comments racist and how their being racist connects with their being an instance of bigotry. Like Maldonado, many commentators explicitly used the latter term to describe Trump’s remarks. Columnist Lewis Diuguid of the Kansas City Star penned a column entitled “Trump’s Attack on Latino Judge is Bigotry, Pure and Simple” ( 2017). Daily Beast writer Michael Daly stated that “Trump’s bigotry was of the worst kind. His was not the bigotry born of ignorance such as the Curiels were liable to encounter if they ventured into southern Indiana. Trump’s bigotry was purposeful.”(Daly 2017).

Compared to the concept of racism, which has prompted a rich debate among philosophers, the concept of bigotry has received relatively little attention.[1] In this section, I begin by discussing what bigotry is; I then connect bigotry to racism and other ideologies.

In everyday use, the term “bigotry” and its cognates tend to get tossed around without much precision. (In that respect it is similar to “racism.”) The philosopher William Ramsey identifies two related elements emphasized in standard, traditional definitions of bigotry: “The first is a very strong and perhaps irrational commitment to one’s own viewpoint. The second is a strong intolerance toward other viewpoints and groups.” (2013, 128).

Both elements invite further questions: Given that “strong commitment” characterizes not only bigotry but also moral conviction, isn’t the “irrational” part crucial to the definition? After all, some ideas genuinely merit strong commitment. Even more challenging is pinning down what “strong intolerance” entails. It can’t simply mean “strong disagreement,” which, like strong commitment, is often warranted. Most people would strongly disagree with anyone who insists that 2+2=5, but we wouldn’t describe such disagreement as bigoted. The same holds for certain moral views: Most people are strongly committed to the claim that slavery is wrong, and they strongly disagree with anyone who thinks otherwise. They are even “intolerant” of such people, in the sense that they’re willing to take steps to stop them from practicing slavery or from spreading pro-slavery views. But no one would describe the committed abolitionist stance as “bigoted”—except, perhaps, an ardent proponent of slavery. Which leads one to wonder whether “bigotry” is simply a term that we apply to strong viewpoints with which we strongly disagree. (I’ll return to this suggestion later on.)

We are unlikely to capture something as complex as bigotry in a tidy set of necessary and sufficient conditions; we can, however, identify key features. I propose the following: Bigotry consists in stubborn and unjustified contempt toward groups of people, typically in the context of a larger system of subordination. Let me elaborate on some key terms.

First, bigotry is fundamentally stubborn—a point underscored by the traditional definition’s inclusion of terms such as “strong” and “intolerant.” Ramsey suggests that “wishy-washy racists,” who are open to abandoning racism, are still bigoted. I disagree, at least insofar as they are genuinely responsive to contrary evidence. Certainly, the wishy-washy racist’s view would be odious, but bigotry isn’t only about a view’s content: It’s also about the manner in which a view is held.[2] “Compliant bigotry” is a contradiction in terms.

Bigotry is unjustified, a point that captures our intuitions about the anti-slavery case. We don’t consider someone who is strongly anti-slavery a bigot, because we recognize their position to be justified. The slavery proponent, by contrast, would (wrongly) view a strong commitment to abolition as unjustified and thus (wrongly) judge the ardent abolitionist to be bigoted. For similar reasons, we are unlikely to consider young children who parrot their parents’ bigoted views bigots, mainly because young children are generally not in a position to know any better. Their views, though false, are justified in light of the evidence to which they have access. (Ramsey 2013, 132–33).

Bigotry is thus context-sensitive. In different historical periods and places, people’s access to evidence varies, and thus so does their level of (subjective) justification. That evidence includes the testimony of others: It is harder to meet the threshold for being a bigot in a society where most others share one’s wrongheaded view than in one where one’s bigotry is frequently and openly criticized. Note, too, that the lack of justification inherent in bigotry is often accompanied by a systematic insensitivity to, or discounting of, evidence that would upset the bigot’s views—a point also related to the “stubbornness” feature. What Kwame Anthony Appiah writes about “racial prejudice” is apt here as well: Bigotry involves a “systematically distorted rationality” (2002).

Bigotry requires contempt, a stance of disdain.[3] Less certain is whether this stance should be understood as fundamentally affective, a matter of feeling, or cognitive, a matter of thought. Perhaps it is both. On the one hand, “indifferent bigot,” like “compliant bigot,” appears to be a contradiction in terms: We typically characterize the bigot as feeling something, and feeling it strongly. On the other hand, we can conceive of someone coolly and dispassionately holding views that nonetheless strike us as bigoted: Imagine, if you will, a Vulcan who harbors racist beliefs. (The fictional Vulcans of Star Trek suppress their emotions.) In any case, even if felt disdain is not a necessary condition of bigotry, it is surely a typical feature: The paradigmatic bigot feels aversion to his targets.

Bigotry is essentially directed toward groups of people. Stubborn, unjustified contempt toward a isolated individual would be wrong, but it is not necessarily bigotry: the contempt must be directed at the individual qua member of a group. Moreover, not just any grouping counts: Someone who feels stubborn, unjustified contempt toward people whose names being with the letter K would be strange, but not a bigot. Why not? One might think that the reason is that the grouping “people whose names begin with K” is arbitrary, whereas bigotry typically targets constitutive features of identity: race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. But while bigotry is typically directed toward constitutive characteristics, it is not clear that it is essentially so. Suppose that stubborn, unjustified contempt toward people with K-names were widespread. In that case, I think it would plausibly be categorized as bigotry. Moreover, we could imagine that in the face of such systemic contempt, having a K-name might eventually become a salient identity feature: The discrimination would ground the constitutive characteristic, and not vice versa.

I suggest that what explains our intuitions about this case is not that K-names fail to be a constitutive feature of identity, but that they fail to be a target of a larger system of subordination. Bigotry is a social phenomenon, at least in its standard forms. (Of course, someone might exhibit bigotry toward people with certain kinds of names because such names correlate with other identity characteristics—consider, names that end in “ski.” Those other characteristics would be the salient object.)

Notice that the characteristic features of bigotry—stubbornness, lack of justification, contempt—are ones that people may possess to a greater or lesser degree. Blogger Wes Alwan writes, “Bigotry does not constitute a spectrum: rather, it marks a spectrum’s far end.” (Alwan 2013). That’s half-right. Bigotry falls at one end of a spectrum of ways people regard one another, but when we zoom in, we find gradations there, too.

We may now turn to the connection between bigotry and racism. One of the interesting philosophical debates about racism in the last two decades concerns the “location problem”: whether racism consists mainly in beliefs—in particular, beliefs about the superiority of certain races—or in attitudes, choices, behaviors, or some other element. Most accounts treat beliefs as essential. Tommie Shelby, for example, argues that racist beliefs are “essential to and even sufficient for racism” (Shelby 2002, 414; Appiah 2002). He treats racism as “fundamentally a type of ideology,” defining ideologies as “widely accepted illusory systems of belief that function to establish or reinforce structures of social oppression” (Shelby 2002, 415). Jorge Garcia, by contrast, has argued for a fundamentally non-doxastic, volitional account of racism: According to Garcia, racism consists in mainly in ill-will. It is not primarily a belief, ideology, or doctrine, but a sin. (2001, 135–36).

My account of bigotry, like Garcia’s account of racism, treats bigotry as essentially a moral vice—both because bigotry involves unjustified contempt and because such contempt tends to contribute to systemic subordination. Even where the contempt does not risk this effect—say, because the bigot keeps his bigotry to himself—bigotry remains vicious in its improper attitude toward fellow human beings. Bigotry may also be an epistemic vice, insofar as contempt has a cognitive component. This is what Appiah seems to have in mind when he refers to the “systematically distorted rationality” of racial prejudice: The bigot discounts contrary evidence in order to maintain his bigoted views.

Garcia’s non-doxastic account of racism is a minority view, however: Most theorists treat racism as depending essentially on racist beliefs. For the purposes of this essay, I will assume that the more common, doxastic/cognitive account of racism is correct. On that assumption, there is an important contrast between racism and bigotry: Whereas racism is fundamentally about what people believe, bigotry is about how they believe it (or, alternatively, how they feel it, if contempt is essentially affective). The bigot is stubborn, and the bigot lacks justification. One way to think about this (assuming a cognitivist understanding of contempt) is to view bigotry as a matter of bad epistemic hygiene regarding our fellow humans’ moral worth. The bigot’s beliefs about his target are not only stubborn but also careless and risky, and thus morally irresponsible.

This contrast between racism and bigotry may shed light on some earlier puzzles. Recall Ramsey’s example of the “wishy washy racist.” If racism consists in beliefs, then it is perfectly possible to be a wishy-washy racist, one who readily gives up racist beliefs; it is not possible, however, to be a wishy-washy (i.e. non-stubborn) bigot. Also recall the observation that we generally don’t consider young children bigots, even when (for example) they repeat their parents’ racist views. That observation is consistent with labeling children racist simply in virtue of their sharing the views. (Their culpability is a separate matter.)

Ramsey notes that “many regard bigotry is a superordinate category with subordinates that include, most prominently, racism and sexism;” he himself lists racism and sexism as “types of bigotry” (2013, 126–27).[4] According to my account, this common classification scheme is inapt: Bigotry is not a genus of which various ideologies are species. Bigotry is a distorted way of forming and maintaining certain beliefs (or attitudes, or both), whereas ideologies such as racism and sexism are distorted belief systems.[5] Of course, bigotry helps to maintain and reinforce those systems, which in turn foster bigotry by making it easier for the bigot to remain unchallenged.

This clarification of the contrast between racism and bigotry also provides one plausible explanation for why Paul Ryan chose the category of racism in disavowing Trump’s position: Doing so allowed him to isolate his criticism to a particular belief—and more precisely, a particular remark (“the textbook definition of a racist comment”)—rather than to condemn Trump’s general character. It thus made his continued endorsement seem slightly less jarring. Bigotry, again, is essentially a moral defect: stubborn unjustified contempt.

To be clear, I am not denying that racism always, or virtually always, involves immorality. But if the standard, doxastic account of racism is correct, getting to the immorality involves an extra step: Moral categories apply to persons, not propositions. Racist beliefs untethered from action are not immoral, although acting on them generally is, as is the failure to take better care in forming, maintaining, and spreading beliefs when such beliefs have morally significant effects.

One final clarification before proceeding: Having accepted the standard, doxastic account of racism, I have suggested that racism applies directly to beliefs and only derivatively to persons—persons are racist insofar as they hold racist beliefs. Bigotry, I think, is exactly the opposite: It is essentially a feature of persons, and only derivatively a feature of beliefs or expressions of belief (statements, actions, and so forth). A bigoted belief, remark, or action is the sort that is typical of bigoted persons. Thus, to call Trump’s remarks bigoted is to suggest that the problem goes beyond their content; it is ultimately to indict him. With that in mind, let us turn from discussing the meaning of “bigotry” to discussing its use.



Early in this essay I suggested that it sometimes seems as if we apply the term “bigotry” to any strong viewpoints with which we strongly disagree. Given the account sketched above, we can understand why such use is tempting. When someone is strongly committed to views that we consider not only wrong but badly wrong—wrong in ways that express unjustified contempt—one plausible explanation is a moral defect in the person so committed. They are not just wrong, they are stubbornly and wickedly wrong; they are bigoted.

To call someone a bigot, then, is not merely to disagree. It is to express a kind of contempt. Here I am using “contempt” in the sense defended by Michelle Mason in her provocative article “Contempt as a Moral Attitude”[6] (2003). Mason argues that contempt is sometimes morally justified; specifically, it is justified whenever it correctly regards its object as “ranking low in worth as a person in virtue of falling short of some legitimate interpersonal ideal” (241). The bigot falls short of ideals of fairness and equality. Properly focused contempt for the bigot highlights this fact.

This element of contempt in attributions of bigotry explains the term’s strong emotive force. Calling people bigots marks them—at least with respect to certain views they hold—as beyond the pale: more worthy of shaming and shunning than of thoughtful engagement. It aims to stigmatize the stigmatizers, treating their stance as not merely wrong, but wicked, noxious, out of bounds. (Here I am taking stigma to be the reputational effect of successful efforts at evoking contempt.) This is why calling people bigots functions as a conversation stopper; it both marks and creates distance. Having referred to someone’s view as bigotry, one cannot then plausibly offer to debate it on the merits; one has already dismissed the view as stubborn unjustified contempt. At the very least, such offers are not likely to be taken seriously by the person so marked.

Should we stigmatize people—at least with respect to certain views that they hold—in this way? Some views are indeed egregiously bad and widely acknowledged as such: for example, that certain races are subhuman, that certain religious believers should be exterminated, that certain genders (such as women) should be the property of others (such as their husbands and fathers). Such views merit condemnation in the strongest possible terms, and refusal to engage them may express stronger condemnation than direct rebuttal. Thus we say: “I won’t even dignify that view with a response.” The reason is that rebuttal might unwittingly serve to “normalize” an egregiously bad view by treating it as being on par, in some substantial sense, with alternatives. It suggests a false equivalence.

Beyond questions of their intrinsic merit, stigmatizing bad views might help to eradicate them, in at least two ways. First, given people’s desire to get along with their fellows—their “tribal” nature—their beliefs are often quite responsive to social pressure.[7] Such pressure can change beliefs, and not merely the willingness to express them. Second, even where stigma does not change beliefs, it may convince people to remain silent about certain views, and such silence may in turn contain the views’ spread. It is worth underscoring the fact that bigoted views are bigoted in part because of their tendency to harm; they consist in unjustified contempt and they typically function within larger systems of subordination. All else being equal, to contain their spread is to minimize their risk. So there are both deontological (merit-based) and consequentialist reasons in favor of stigmatizing egregiously bad views.

There are, however, both deontological and consequentialist arguments in the other direction. Put aside for the moment the fact that people sometimes stigmatize views that are not egregiously bad; doing so is, of course, prima facie seriously wrong (and probably all-things-considered wrong in most real-world cases[8]). One might imagine, instead, a Kantian argument of the following sort: Respect for persons requires proper regard for their nature as rational free creatures—as “ends in themselves.” Stigma bypasses that nature, both by appealing to emotion and by dismissing the object as unworthy of rational engagement. It thus treats the “bigot” as in effect less than human.

My first reaction to this argument is to object to the characterization of stigma as treating its object as less than human. One can stigmatize another person in virtue of specific views that the latter holds and refuses to relinquish, without thereby negating that person’s humanity. Indeed, it is precisely because we expect better of the person that we stigmatize them for holding the view.

I also reject the incomplete picture of human nature on which this Kantian-style argument rests. We are rational creatures, but we are also emotional ones, and there is nothing inherently base about acknowledging, respecting, and appealing to that emotional side. As Hume understood, the affective side of our nature is crucial to moral life.[9] One need not be a demagogue in order to appreciate the use of emotion in moral persuasion. The key question is whether the emotional appeal is being used in the service of personal advantage or the service of truth.

The consequentialist case against stigmatizing bad views (or persons, in virtue of their bad views) is more complex. We may begin with John Stuart Mill’s famous argument in On Liberty. Near the beginning of Chapter Two, Mill writes,

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (1989, 20)

Although Mill is concerned largely with government suppression of views, the arguments he offers apply to social pressure as well.

One can distinguish two interpretations of Mill’s position here; we can call them the extreme interpretation and the moderate interpretation. On the extreme interpretation, what Mill says is clearly false; on the moderate interpretation, what he says is true, but it does not rule out stigmatizing bad views. Let me consider each in turn.

The extreme interpretation states that views that we judge to be egregiously bad must nevertheless be treated as “open questions;” we must give them, if not equal time, at least regular attention. But that conclusion seems wrong even by Mill’s own lights. If we have once, twice, three times given such a view a hearing, and have thus enjoyed the “greater perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with [this view’s] error,” each new collision will have diminishing returns. What’s more, additional collisions would rob time from other possible debates that are potentially more valuable. In a typical college “Contemporary Moral Issues” class, we do not spend time debating whether women should have the vote; one reason is that there are better ways to spend class time. Finally, and importantly: To count only the collision’s value without considering its various downsides is to skew the ledger. The airing of egregiously bad views may serve truth, but it may also harm persons, and the consequentialist Mill ought to take such harms seriously. As Willmoore Kendall argued in response to Mill over a half-century ago:

Mill’s proposals have as one of their tacit premises a false conception of the nature of society, and are, therefore, unrealistic on their face. They assume that society is, so to speak, a debating club devoted above all to the pursuit of truth, and capable therefore of subordinating itself—and all other considerations, goods, and goals—to that pursuit. Otherwise, the proposals would go no further than to urge upon society the common-sense view that the pursuit of truth is one of the goods it ought to cherish… (1960, 977)

So, truth is valuable, but it’s not the only relevant value.

Keep in mind that to stigmatize a view is not to censor it; it is not to demand that those who offer it be muzzled or jailed or executed. It is, rather, to deny them the honor of our continued company and esteem. To put the point in more popular terms: Free speech means that you may say what you want; it doesn’t mean that you may do so without social consequence.

This leaves us, then, with a moderate interpretation, which states that we ought to stigmatize views reluctantly, carefully, and with intellectual humility. Mill is surely right about this, with plenty of historical examples to back him up. But the moderate version doesn’t rule out stigma; it merely insists that it happen judiciously.

A number of contemporary writers have buttressed the Millian case for more cautious, less frequent stigmatizing. In a series of articles for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf argued that “the coalition that opposes Donald Trump needs to get better at persuading its fellow citizens and winning converts, rather than leaning so heavily on stigmatizing those who disagree with them.” (2016a, 2016b). His central reason for this position is that stigmatization is an unsustainable strategy, largely because of the temptation to overuse it. Friedersdorf cites a case involving Senator Bernie Sanders. A woman in the audience of a post-election speech declared that she wanted to be the second Latina senator and asked Sanders’s advice. Sanders began by agreeing that politics needs more women and people of color. He then went on to say,

It is not good enough for somebody to say, “Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class of this country, and is going to take on the big money interests… This is where there is going to be division within the Democratic Party. It is not good enough for someone to say, “I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry. (2016a).

Sanders’s remarks prompted an online debate about whether his comments demeaned the questioner. Strikingly, Washington Monthly writer Nancy LeTourneau suggested that Sanders was “defending white male supremacy.” (2016)

Unlike the term “bigot,” the term “white supremacist” is not inherently evaluative, at least not on the surface: Standard dictionary definitions of white supremacy describe it as consisting in the belief that the white race is superior to others. That belief is wrong, surely, but its wrongness is not built in to the meaning of the words. Nonetheless, among audiences that correctly recognize its wrongness, the term has strong condemnatory force: In decent company, to call someone a white supremacist is to mark them as really bad—again, as more worthy of shunning and shaming than of thoughtful engagement. That stance seems clearly wrong vis-à-vis Sanders. Friedersdorf’s worry, echoing an argument by Kevin Drum in Mother Jones, is that if we stretch the term “white supremacist” to include people like Bernie Sanders, the term becomes less forceful (Drum 2017). Such overstretching makes it harder to distinguish between Sanders, on the one hand, and people like former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke or current Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer, on the other. This is not to deny that white supremacy can infect even well-meaning, progressive people or that it can be useful—indeed, even obligatory—to identify and correct the subtle, unintentional forms. Nor is it to deny that standard dictionary definitions may miss something important about white supremacy: As Charles Mills has argued, white supremacy is “a political system, a particular power structure of formal or informal rule, socioeconomic privilege, and norms for the differential distribution of material wealth and opportunities, benefits and burdens, rights and duties”—and the subtle, unintentional forms are a key part of that structure (Mills 1997, 3). The point is, rather, about the consequences of language: Denouncing Sanders’s remarks as an instance of “white supremacy” may mean that, in practice, the term is less able to create stigma where stigma is due.

In a subsequent piece, Friedersdorf offers an additional argument, reviving a point made by Mill in On Liberty: If we shun rather than engage erroneous views, our ability to defend the truth against them may eventually atrophy—with the result that its opponents may then more easily outmaneuver us. Friedersdorf concludes that it is “vital to understand the dismaying way in which bygone successes at inculcating liberal norms—successfully stigmatizing even that which ought to carry stigma—tend to sow self-destructive seeds.” (2016b). Reliance of stigma may rob us of the intellectual tools for persuading the “moveable middle.”

I would add that, in addition to the risks of overstretching and liberal intellectual atrophy, overusing stigma can also blind us to bigoted views’ pervasiveness. As noted above, one function of stigma is to warn people not to air certain views in public. The potential benefit of such warning is that it may contain the views’ spread and minimize their risk. The danger of such warning is that it may allow the spread to go unnoticed, as people learn to share certain views only in closed circles. This problem is amplified in an internet age, where anonymity makes such closed circles easier to form in some ways. Arguably, this danger is one of the lessons of the 2016 election, in which liberals were caught unawares by the extent of xenophobia, Islamophobia, white working-class resentment, and the like.

Let me conclude this section by identifying a common mistake. In deciding whether to stigmatize a view—to treat it as beyond the pale, and unworthy of engagement—people often begin by asking how bad the view is. That is a good beginning. The mistake is treating it as if it were the whole story; as if there were no moral work left to do. A judicious stigmatizer must ask not only how bad a view is, but also two additional questions: First, how culpable is the person offering the view? Second, and very important, What is likely to be the most effective antidote to the view: shunning or engagement?

The latter question—which is too often overlooked—requires attention to context. Among other factors, its answer depends on the view’s popularity, the tenaciousness with which people hold it, and the attractiveness of alternatives. An honest assessment of these factors may mean that it is sometimes morally desirable not to stigmatize views that are nevertheless egregiously bad on their merits. It may mean that we should sometimes withhold the term “bigot” even in the face of clear bigotry. Calling things by their right name is morally important, but containing and eradicating harmful ideologies is even more morally important.



In Part I, I argued that bigotry consists in stubborn and unjustified contempt toward groups of people, typically in the context of a larger system of subordination. In Part II, I argued that calling a person or view bigoted functions to stigmatize stigmatizers, and I evaluated various moral arguments for and against such a stance; I cautioned against its overuse. We may now briefly apply these discussions to the case at hand.

Was Trump guilty of bigotry? Without access to his mind and heart, we cannot know with certainty whether Trump’s remarks about Judge Curiel stemmed from stubborn unjustified contempt toward Mexican Americans, or a desire to rile up his nativist base, or fear at losing his fraud case, or an interest in distracting the press—or, perhaps likely, some combination of the above. Substantiating an accusation of bigotry requires considering a larger pattern of behavior—and in Trump’s case, the pattern is consistent with several of the above explanations. Of course, any of those explanations would still entail that his remarks were wrong, regardless of whether they exposed bigotry. Moreover, his remarks are surely typical of bigots and the sort that tend to foster the subordination of Mexican Americans and other people of color. So we can confidently refer to them as bigoted remarks, even if we reserve judgment on the man himself.

What about Ryan’s calling Trump’s remarks the “textbook definition of a racist comment” while continuing to endorse him for the presidency? In the last section I argued that the pragmatics of attributions of bigotry require distancing; indeed, Ryan himself used the language of “disavowal.” But as I noted in Part I, Ryan chose the term “racist” rather than “bigoted,” and that choice gives him slightly more room to “love the speaker, but hate the remark.” Indeed, one reason why attributions of bigotry generally require more distancing than attributions of racism, all else being equal, is that bigotry is by definition stubborn: Bigoted remarks reflect tenacious beliefs, which presumably reflect the character of the speaker. In that sense, “love the bigot, hate the bigotry” suffers from one of the same problems that undermines “love the sinner, hate the sin” as applied to homosexuality. Some (actual or alleged) “sins” are not isolated missteps; they are central to the “sinner’s” identity. In Trump’s case, although the remarks may not reflect stubborn contempt for people of color, they are congruent with a larger pattern of marginalizing such people. Indeed, stoking fear at the Other was a key strategy in Trump’s presidential campaign.

Surely, the best explanation for Ryan’s awkward stance is politics. His own elaboration made that clear: “I think [Trump’s comment] should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable. But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not.”(Steinhauer, Martin, and Herszenhorn 2016). Ryan’s interest in maintaining political power gave him a strong material incentive to excuse Trump’s remarks, if not in word then at least in practice. It was disavowal without consequence.

The problem with this kind of political pivot is that it, too, abuses words—in ways both related to and different from the abuse that concerns Friedersdorf. Friedersdorf worries that stretching the extension of negative emotive terms robs them of their stigmatizing power. But there’s another way to rob them of their stigmatizing power: Violate their pragmatics. The person who identifies a comment as bigoted, or even racist, but then proceeds as if nothing is wrong is like the person who enthusiastically applauds while saying “Boo,” or the person who slaps someone while saying “I love you.” The problem is not merely that such behavior is confusing, or even that those who engage in it should not be trusted. It’s also that they make it harder for the rest of us to use language to proper moral effect.[10]

John Corvino Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. His work focuses on LGBT equality, marriage, and, more recently, religious liberty. He is the author of Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination (with counterpoint by Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis, 2017); What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? (2013); and Debating Same-Sex Marriage (with counterpoint by Maggie Gallagher, 2012), all from Oxford University Press. Read more at www.johncorvino.com.



Alwan, Clarence. 2013. “What the Word ‘Bigot’ Actually Means (and Why It Is Important).” The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2002. “Racisms.” In Ethics in Practice, 2nd Edition, edited by Hugh LaFollette, 389–99. Blackwell Publishing.

Daly, Michael. 2017. “The Mexican Judge Trump Slimed Is Really Making America Great Again.” The Daily Beast. January 30. http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-mexican-judge-trump-slimed-is-really-making-america-great-again.

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[1] The most developed philosophical treatment of bigotry per se of which I’m aware is (Ramsey 2013, 128) Ramsey’s own definition is “Holding evaluative beliefs or other attitudes that are (usually) negative and directed toward members of a group of persons where the property used for grouping fails to provide proper support for the negative evaluation” (141). My own definition is strongly influenced by his argument, although we differ on some key points. For racism, see for example (Appiah 2002; Garcia 1996, 1997, 1999; Shelby 2002; Mills 2003).

[2] Ramsey elsewhere seems to agree. See (2013, 129).

[3] For a helpful discussion of contempt as a reactive attitude, see (Mason 2003).

[4] In a footnote Ramsey acknowledges that “some may believe that there are forms of institutional racism that do not qualify as bigotry. If so, then perhaps the proper subordinate category is racial bigotry.” (Ramsey 2013, 149 fn5).

[5] Shelby defines ideologies roughly as “widely accepted illusory systems of belief that function to establish or reinforce structures of social oppression” (2002, 415).

[6] I leave open the question of whether contempt is fundamentally affective (Mason’s view) or cognitive.

[7] For some research on this point see (Haidt 2012).

[8] One can imagine hypothetical exceptions of the following sort: An evil genius will commit mass-murder if a certain good view spreads, and the only (or best) way to prevent its spread is to stigmatize it.

[9] For a wide-ranging and thoughtful recent discussion, see Gill 2014.

[10] I wish to thank Jonathan Cottrell, Robin Dembroff, Katherine Kim, Timothy Kirschenheiter, Rebecca Kukla, Lawrence B. Lombard, Jonathan Rauch, Brad Roth, Bruce Russell, Soraya (Layla) Saatchi, Tom Wood and anonymous reviewers at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal for helpful comments on earlier drafts of (portions of) this essay.

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