In Defense of Tolerance

From the ashes of Chick-fil-a’s well-publicized break with Jim Hensen Productions over marriage equality comes, like a phoenix, the emergence of a strange kind of argument against acceptance of gay Americans. It’s not a new argument – it appears nearly every time society is asked to tolerate or accept something that it heretofore has not – and it seems to be designed to trip up advocates of tolerance.

Without intent to present the argument as a straw man, this line of thinking goes as follows: whenever two sides meet in political debate, the one who first deploys the principle of ‘toleration’ is by definition hypocritical. This is because the pro-toleration crowd merely wants to recast the legitimate concerns of the anti-toleration group as hate speech or bigoted thoughtlessness. (A good example would be those who desire marriage equality in the United States, who conservatives claim are trying to upset the social order, which gay marriage opponents are merely trying to preserve.) By championing themselves as the defenders of ‘tolerance,’ the ‘tolerant’ ensure that the thought and speech of the other side is delegitimized and excluded. Excluding others is itself intolerant, showing that the ‘tolerant’ supporters of gay marriage (or affirmative action, or whatever) are themselves bigoted and thus hypocritical.

Unprepared defenders of acceptance can find themselves in this position rather quickly, and it can be a troubling argument. Is it true that I’m unintentionally excluding others when I’m really seeking only to be tolerant?

Not so. “Toleration” is not a principle of universal acceptance of all thought and conduct, but rather a restriction on which thought and conduct will be accepted in any given sphere of debate, whether it be in the public forum of the United States or in the high school classroom. It’s understandable that defining acceptance as a restriction on thought and conduct can be uncomfortable to people who imagine themselves as open and universally caring individuals, so it is necessary to quickly define exactly what is restricted.

Toleration is merely the principle that, in civilized discourse, neither speakers nor states can silence, disregard, or punish speakers based on arbitrary criteria or life circumstances. To argue otherwise means that you believe that states and speakers can and should exclude others based on criteria like sexual orientation, race, or circumstances like the number of times one has had sex. Bigoted thinking, then, reveals itself in Rush Limbaugh’s “prostitute” comments, and in the arguments of those who see the boycott of Chick-fil-a as ‘punishment’ of a company or an attempt to stifle speech.

Judgment of others is not an inherently negative action, despite common opinions to the contrary. What is negative is basing the judgments made off of foolish criteria. Public, political thought is not a foolish criterion – it is made to be judged, and when a society judges it harshly, there’s no crying “bigot”.

7 comments

  1. Great post! Too many people seem to believe that “tolerance” means agreeing with (or at least accepting) everything. Nope.

  2. “Toleration is merely the principle that, in civilized discourse, neither speakers nor states can silence, disregard, or punish speakers based on arbitrary criteria or life circumstances.”

    Hmm, when was the last time during a debate that a leftist-liberal brought in the words “privileged, heterosexual, cisgender white male” in relation to my words? Wait, I think it was almost every time. “You have a white privilege problem.” “You are a man. You don’t understand this issue.”

    Congratulations for creating another shining example of leftist hypocrisy.

    1. Not at all. You made political speech – expressed an opinion based on your leanings, your experiences, and your past. Furthermore, those life circumstances apparently led you to express a position that got you criticized.

      Understand: I don’t have to agree with everything you say. That’s my point here. So when I disagree with you, I’m not a hypocrite.

      Secondly, you haven’t actually expressed a position yet, except apparently that debates should exclude people based on arbitrary criteria. That makes you a bigot. Have people been bigoted toward you in the past? Perhaps. You seem to be conflating me with everyone who’s ever said anything negative about your white privilege. But if you’ve ever met someone who claimed to be tolerant, but rejected your views, perhaps you should consider why before you turn the label of “bigot” back on them.

      1. You made political speech – expressed an opinion based on your leanings, your experiences, and your past.
        No, I made “political speech” which I attempted to base on rational arguments. Whether there were influences in my past which shaped it is irrelevant, because I do not base it on that. (Take an example: say, I argue against abortion using the line of argumentation that I think a fetus is a living person. I don’t argue against it by invoking a personal experience of a traumatizing abortion or something like that). Yet left-liberals love to try to invalidate my arguments by invoking my life circumstances.
        Understand: I don’t have to agree with everything you say. That’s my point here. So when I disagree with you, I’m not a hypocrite.
        You don’t have to agree with everything I say. You simply have to refrain from attacking my life circumstances in justifying your argument. I don’t know about you in particular, but many liberals I’ve talked with are hypocrites when it comes to “tolerance”, even if we define it according to your definition.

        Secondly, you haven’t actually expressed a position yet, except apparently that debates should exclude people based on arbitrary criteria. That makes you a bigot.
        That makes you an intellectual slanderer, Mr. bespectacledape, because I never advocated such a position. I simply demand that liberals do the same when trying to debate conservatives. I certainly don’t think it’s right to disqualify anyone’s opinion because of “sexual orientation, race, or circumstances like the number of times one has had sex.” (May I add RELIGION into that list?) Yet I ask that liberals do the same thing when arguing for their cause – such as refraining from comments that one supports the pro-life perspective because “he wants to use his privilege in patriarchy to control my vagina.”
        But if you’ve ever met someone who claimed to be tolerant, but rejected your views, perhaps you should consider why before you turn the label of “bigot” back on them.
        Certainly. I am fine with people rejecting my views and claiming to be “tolerant”. I am not very OK, though, with people calling my views as “bigoted” simply because my point of view is different from theirs. For example, I am tired of feminists who start name-calling, effectively trying to punish and silence me into submission, every time I express dissent from their views. Such people are truly bigoted in my view, just as bigoted as Rush Limbaugh.

      2. First, thanks for the developed response. It gets to be kind of a pain trying to respond intelligently to people who post slogans and one-sentence ‘logical proofs’ that they assume to be the end of the discussion when, in reality, it’s only the beginning. Furthermore, thanks for engaging. It’s not often that people will put themselves out there when someone might be hostile to their viewpoint.

        Now: I don’t know who you debate, which liberals you know, or any of that. I do want to return to my point that I am not some kind of “every-Liberal” or an agglomeration of all liberal thought. Personally, I would never think to attack your positions on your whiteness, your maleness, or your heterosexuality. Not least because I am all of those things. I think it’s easy to stake positions that seem fair because of our shared white privilege – it doesn’t strike me as weird that I have to present my ID places, for example, but it might if I were poor and lived in a neighborhood where nobody spoke English. (Which is one left-liberal argument for why voter ID laws are less about fraud prevention and more about voter suppression.)

        I’m going to go ahead and drop the name-calling we’ve now done to each other, because I wasn’t sure exactly what position you were taking. It doesn’t seem to be a direct refutation of my point and more of a commentary on your experience with people who targeted your background instead of addressing your points. So we’re back to me not knowing if you are a bigot, and you not knowing if I’m a slanderer. I agree we should not base arguments off of others’ religion, as well. (Insofar as their religious practice doesn’t mean violating others’ rights; same with my other criteria

        I know a bunch of feminists, or people that have studied and accepted much of the argument of feminism, and I’ve never personally been bullied. I’m sorry if you have. It should be mentioned that the core argument of feminism is merely one of awareness – that the dominance of men for so long has enshrined ideas into language and culture that we may no longer be comfortable with. I see no reason that men should feel useless or malevolent, but at the same time, we need to think about what we’re doing and whether it’s helpful or harmful to our female counterparts.

  3. I do want to return to my point that I am not some kind of “every-Liberal” or an agglomeration of all liberal thought. Personally, I would never think to attack your positions on your whiteness, your maleness, or your heterosexuality.
    I am heartened by the fact that at least you openly affirm this condition of fair play. I apologize if earlier I tended to group all liberals under some kind of monolithic banner.

    I think it’s easy to stake positions that seem fair because of our shared white privilege – it doesn’t strike me as weird that I have to present my ID places, for example, but it might if I were poor and lived in a neighborhood where nobody spoke English.
    I certainly agree that people’s thought often closely correlate to whatever class/race/religion/etc. they are in. However, I believe that when we are engaging in “civilized discourse”, this fact should not be manipulated as rhetorical fire to discredit opponents and turn it into an “us vs. them” kind of argument. Unfortunately in my experience, liberals have been much more quick in invoking such kinds of rhetorical moves in order to swing the atmosphere of the discourse to their side. The most amusing incident was when I tried to point out (in an online discussion) that I am not white, and have actually never been around whites for most of my life – and yet they still insisted that I had a “white privilege problem”.

    Insofar as their religious practice doesn’t mean violating others’ rights; same with my other criteria
    Now this little disclaimer here is actually the source most of the problem, because clearly people have different conceptions of what “violating others’ rights” means. For example, in the Catholic church and birth control issue which you alluded to, many people believed that Catholic organizations were “violating women’s reproductive/health rights” by not agreeing to subsidize birth control. Do you think that justifies portraying them as engaging in a “war on women”? Limbaugh’s comments were reprehensible, but so was the Democratic effort to rhetorically spin the issue into a “war on women” situation.

    It should be mentioned that the core argument of feminism is merely one of awareness – that the dominance of men for so long has enshrined ideas into language and culture that we may no longer be comfortable with.
    This portrayal of the “core argument” as one of “awareness” is part of the main problem. Using the word “awareness” makes it seem that those who do not support feminism are deluded and blinded, and that the central ideas of feminism are an obvious truth to anyone. The problem is that I disagree with many main points of feminism. For example I disagree with the typical feminist portrayal of “rape culture”. I don’t think that patriarchy was as oppressive and harmful to women as feminists make it out to be. I think men’s rights activists have legitimate concerns. From a wider perspective, I don’t agree that “diversity”, per se, is a valuable thing in itself. Have you spat on you monitor in disgust already? ;)

    The issue at hand, of course, is not whether my positions are rational or well-supported with arguments. The issue is whether it is justified to apply the laundry list of liberal shaming words when a liberal is arguing with someone like me. I am open to vehement criticism to my positions. However, I am very disappointed when liberals start using words such as “misogynist” and “rape apologist” when debating such issues. These merely function to turn rhetoric to their side – essentially a left wing smear job. It’s similar to how some conservatives use the words “anti-American” or “anti-National Security” when debating the issue of foreign wars, for example. I think it adds nothing to the discussion.

  4. [...] Why “tolerance” doesn’t have to mean tolerating hate and bigotry. “‘Toleration’ is not a principle of universal acceptance of all thought and [...]

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