Chesterton on bigotry as failure of imagination

Bigot has become one of our culture’s favorite devil terms—a “potent but vague” word that carries overwhelmingly negative baggage. The power of the devil term is such that if you can throw it at someone and make it stick even a little bit, they can be ruined. Often, the mere accusation is enough. I shouldn’t need to supply recent examples.

Unfortunately, the very vagueness of devil terms and the inevitable process of escalation in political rhetoric almost always lead to their promiscuous use and abuse. While bigot may be a rhetorical sidearm—second choice after the blunt-edged claymore of racist—these two and the even vaguer prejudice are frequently used as if they mean the same thing. They don’t.

Prejudice is a bit of a bugaboo, of course—we all have prejudices, our reason’s experience-based shorthand, so they need not be negative—and I don’t intend to peer into the dumpster fire that is the definition of racism. But bigot bridges the latter two in being, like racist, definitively bad and undesirable, and, like prejudice, so vague that it is often used to mean something else.

Here’s GK Chesterton, in a 1910 essay called “The Bigot,” on what bigotry actually means:

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

And, from later in the same essay:

It is admitted, even in dictionaries, that an example assists a definition. I take an instance of the error of bigotry out of my own biography, so to speak. Nothing is more marked in this strange epoch of ours than the combination of an exquisite tact and sympathy in things of taste and artistic style, with an almost brutal stupidity in the things of abstract thought. A principal critic on the "New Age" made a remark about me a little while ago which amused me very much. After saying many things much too complimentary but marvelously sympathetic, and offering many criticisms which were really delicate and exact, he ended up (as far as I can remember) with these astounding words: "But I can never really feel a man to be my intellectual equal who believes in any dogma." It was like seeing a fine Alpine climber fall five hundred feet into the mud.

Bigotry [is] the failure of the mind to imagine any other mind.

For this last sentence is the old, innocent, and stale thing called Bigotry; it is the failure of the mind to imagine any other mind. My unhappy critic is among the poorest of the children of men; he has only one universe. Everyone, of course, must see one cosmos as the true cosmos; but "he" cannot see any other cosmos, even as a hypothesis.

Chesterton—who, as I’ve noted here before, didn’t mind a good argument—elaborates on this theme quite a lot in his work. There’s his famous line about open minds: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” There’s this passage from “The Bigotry of the Rationalists,” published the same year as “The Bigot”: “There is no person so narrow as the person who is sure that he is broad; indeed, being quite sure that one is broad is itself a form of narrowness.”

From “The Bigot” again:

True liberality, in short, consists of being able to imagine the enemy.

Bigotry, in Chesterton’s view, is first and foremost self-deceit through pride. The bigot cheats himself out of the whole picture, out of the truth. Forget empathy—a favorite god term nowadays—bigotry is a failure of imagination. But mere “openmindedness,” tolerance’s lazy schoolmaster, is not the solution:

The free man is not he who thinks all opinions equally true or false; that is not freedom, but feeble-mindedness. The free man is he who sees the errors as clearly as he sees the truth.

A self-regarding insistence on one’s own broadmindedness is in fact as exclusive and narrow as an insistence that all members of X group behave in Y way, or that all adherents of X religion will themselves think Y about Z. The bigoted exist in Edwin A. Abbott’s Pointland: alone, dimensionless, with “no cognizance even of the number Two,” and content “to be vile and ignorant.”

But perhaps the most pervasive form of bigotry today is even worse for its dim awareness of other points of view: imagining the vast bigotry of our opponents and congratulating ourselves on our empathy and perspicacity, unaware, in our self-satisfaction, that we’re locked in an intellectual prison—one whose doors lock from the inside.