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”.