Camosy on Labels

Fordham ethicist Charles Camosy, author of the wonderful, wonderful book Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, wrote a column last week for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” series that took a close look at an important element of American political discourse: labels, and their all-too-frequent use as weapons by politicians, journalists, and even ordinary citizens. Camosy considers three labels in particular and examines their use in three specific and timely contexts.

The most striking aspect of his argument is not the fact that he thinks we should be more circumspect about how we refer to those with whom we disagree. Rather, it is his choice of examples and his deliberate effort to avoid the appearance of defending a single ideology that makes his case especially compelling.

The three labels that he takes up are “racist,” “radical,” and “bigot.” He relates the first to the trial of George Zimmerman, and maintains that the media behaved badly when covering it because they “distort[ed] the facts to fit the preordained racialized story.” A number of journalists have described Zimmerman as “white” when he is actually Hispanic. NBC was embroiled in controversy when it came to light that it had misleadingly edited the tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call to make it seem as if he had claimed Trayvon Martin looked suspicious because he was black. Observers can and will continute to debate whether or not this was what Zimmerman actually believed, but it is not what he actually said.

Camosy is careful about how he approaches this neuralgic subject and prefaces his remarks by insisting that “no one should compromise on principle of resisting the racist social structures in our culture of whiteness.” That said, he does take a position on the issue of Zimmerman’s putative racism and, insofar as the Martin case has become a proxy war for other issues in American politics (gun control, race relations, etc.), to defend Zimmerman is to take the “conservative side” in the debate.

The “radical” label takes Camosy to the recent clash over late-term abortion in Texas and the key role that Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis played in trying to block passage of a sweeping set of restrictions on the practice. He rebukes the most strident supporters of these measures for calling their opponents “pro-aborts” and “radical feminists,” noting that those who say they want to “keep big government out of the private choices of women… need not be ‘pro-abortion’ any more than those who support the First Amendment are ‘pro-pornography.’”

Lastly, he considers the “bigot” label in the context of same-sex marriage. In his view, the rhetoric employed in the struggle over gay unions has “reached new levels of incivility.” He again makes his argument thoughtfully, decrying the fact that “those who oppose gay marriage are… labeled ‘bigots’ or ‘homophobic'” while acknowledging that “LGBT people continue to be subjected to horrific bigotry.” Since there was a time (not long ago) when gay marriage was a notion not seriously entertained by anyone, regardless of religious or political affiliation, Camosy rightly observes that to apply such a vitriolic label to its opponents is to claim that even someone as socially liberal as Barack Obama was a “homophobic bigot” a mere year or two ago when he supported civil unions but not same-sex marriage.

The end result is that Camosy comes across as defending a hodgepodge of causes that virtually no one would see as constituting a coherent set of political positions. His examples give the impression that he has pro-George Zimmerman, pro-choice (“bro-choice”?), and anti-gay marriage leanings. This combination is even more unusual than his actual political views, which were, as Ross Douthat recently put it, “once commonplace, [but are] now mythical.”

That’s precisely the point. Camosy means for his readers to be disarmed by this. Our discourse is rife with the hypocritical tendency to plead for tolerance of and sympathy for one’s own views or the views of one’s allies while denigrating those of others, and so it’s no wonder that we tend to be skeptical of any piece that bemoans bias against the author’s own worldview in the media or elsewhere while remaining blind to the ways in which that bias afflicts his opponents too.

But Camosy really means what he says, and he proves it by skillfully directing our attention away from the substance of his own personal opinions. Someone who defends his enemies is almost certainly being sincere. Camosy is able to effectively leverage that fact to make an otherwise trite argument credible and persuasive.