The anti-bigotry speech double-standard

Keith Burgun
5 min readMar 24, 2021

Just as it’s bad to be publicly bigoted, regardless of your true intentions or feelings, it’s good to be publicly anti-bigotry, regardless of your true intentions or feelings.

When someone is publicly racist, we don’t ask “well, how did they really feel, deep inside?” We understand that the harm has already been done: it’s about what words do, out in the world. When the person tries defending their statement by saying “oh, I am actually not racist at all / I have no racist feelings whatsoever / this wasn’t meant to communicate racism”, we understand that this doesn’t insulate from the criticism. They are still responsible for the harm that their racist speech causes.

We have no way of knowing what someone’s deeply felt sentiments are or are not, and that’s the reason that trying to point directly to them in that way has no significant effect. Our deeply felt sentiments only start to matter once they start manifesting in the world, either through our actions, or through our speech.

The above is mostly understood, at least by people on the political left, and increasingly, by many on the political center. But when you start talking about “public anti-bigotry”, suddenly a new standard emerges.

When someone tweets that “Black Lives Matter”, or perhaps something in defense of trans people, it is common to see that person accused of “virtue signaling”. This term is meant to suggest that the speaker deep down doesn’t really care about black lives or trans people, with the follow-up that they’re only saying this thing to win social points from others. (I will address that second bit later.)

Why is it that with anti-bigotry sentiments, we deploy this additional hurdle that must be crossed? With our racism example, most of us understood and agreed that it doesn’t matter how the person felt deep down, that the harm was caused by the speech act itself. But then, suddenly when it comes to an anti-racist speech act, we now demand the impossible: that a speaker also prove that they truly feel that way.

This double-standard is one of the many social mechanisms that has developed which has enabled bigotry to protect itself over time. For this reason, and others, I suggest that the term “virtue signaling” should not be a part of the lexicon of anyone interested in projects of social justice.

The selective deployment of “winning social points”

You can, and indeed do, win social points, any time you speak. Whatever you say, whether it’s, “I liked the new Iron Man Movie” or, “I hated the new Iron Man Movie”, or whether it’s “black lives matter”, or “blue lives matter”, there are going to be some people who give you some form of social rewards, and some people who give you the opposite of social rewards. On social media, people may respond by clicking “like” or leaving a supportive comment, or they may mute you or even block you in response. In real life, there are also a huge range of possible responses that people will have based on what you’re saying, ranging all the way from “wanting to become your best friend now” to “wanting to throw you through a window”.

A better way to look at how social interaction happens is that, if you want to look at social interactions in a highly quantified “Dating Sim” sort of way (which I’m not sure I would recommend), we’re usually doing something more like trading social “points”. Losing some points here to gain points somewhere else.

So the question is really more about whose social points you want to win. Sure, if I speak about the human rights of immigrants, I will probably be winning social points among many on the left. But I will also be losing social points among some in the center and losing significant points with Trump voters. Instead, I could seek to win Trump-voter-points by speaking about immigrants, well… kind of the way Trump does.

But again, it seems like we largely understand that it doesn’t really matter how Trump “really felt” when he talked about a Muslim ban or called several African nations “shithole countries”. We understand that regardless of how he feels, the damage is done.

Similarly, if a politician tweets about or otherwise signals their support for Black Lives Matter or other anti-bigotry movements, that is helpful to some extent, regardless of their true feelings or any actions or lack of actions they’ve taken. It’s only speech, of course. But we seem to suddenly expect speech to be more than speech when it comes to anti-bigotry.

“Deep Down, Everyone Agrees With Me”

I believe oneissue here is that many on the left really over-estimate how widespread their views are. They seem to believe, or at least feel subconsciously, that deep down everyone knows they’re more morally enlightened. And if everyone knows that, then it stands to reason that, yeah, someone can always go out there and say the thing that WE ALL KNOW to be true — that we should support BLM, that trans people and immigrants deserve full human rights and dignity, etc — and just soak up all the free social awards!

That sadly, is not the reality.

74,000,000 people voted for Trump in the 2020 election. Celebrities and corporations come out publicly opposing these social justice movements all the time. They choose to trade away any “social justice points” they have or could get, for a somewhat comparable share of “bigotry points”. Bigotry is pretty darn popular in the US and around the world.

When someone comes out with a socially-positive statement, I think we should take that for what it is, just as we do with a socially-negative statement. Sure, we should understand the magnitude: a tweet is not “action”. A tweet is a tweet. We seem to understand that fine, until suddenly when a tweet contains socially-positive information. Then, we have a tendency to see the tweet as existing instead of action.

There are legitimate questions about what the effects of speech are on the speaker: does tweeting about anti-racism make me less likely to take action, more likely, or does it not affect it at all? These are very valid and unsolved questions, but I find that it gets raised selectively. Typically, speech is allowed to be merely speech, but when someone wants to “disqualify” or otherwise disregard anti-racist speech, they will raise this point as one of many techniques to do so. Do we ask this question of the racist speaker? Do we demand that they also take racist action before condemning their speech?

Speech is perhaps merely speech, but as we understand when it comes to bigoted speech, speech does matter. Do I think when Senate Democrats knelt to symbolize their support for the movement for Black Lives, that it was anything but speech? No, I think it was mere speech. And I have a huge number of complaints about the way that these rich, corrupt Senate politicians operate. But for what it was, I’d certainly prefer that they do this than that they didn’t.

If we accept that speech matters, then just as we recognize the harm that racist or transphobic speech does to our communities, we should equally recognize the help (whatever its scale) that anti-racist or anti-transphobic speech provides.

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Keith Burgun

Game designer with a BA in Political Science. Author of Clockwork Game Design.