…or at least certain rhetorical uses of the term.
Let’s start with the most obvious, and perhaps the most important example in contemporary American politics, tolerance of homosexuality. People often invoke the value of tolerance as a means of advancing acceptance of homosexuality. There is definitely some positive value to this approach, but the stratagem has at least two major flaws.
Problem 1: Apparent contradiction. The typical response here is to say that those pushing tolerance of homosexuality often show themselves to be intolerant of those who are intolerant of homosexuality. (Yes, that’s a serious double-negative maze in there, but you can manage it, I know you can.) Simply put, some people advocating tolerance really are too quick to attack cultural conservatives (particularly evangelical Christians) in personal and inappropriate ways. And if there are reasonable ways to advocate tolerance for homosexuals while remaining critical of its critics, well, let us just say that an awful lot of people are too tone deaf to notice the necessary distinctions.
Problem 2: The Open Door Defense. I first noticed this problem when I heard someone claim to be tolerant of blacks. I just could not get my mind past the notion that there was anything about African Americans that needed tolerating. And therein lies the problem; at least one way of construing the term in question suggests that the person to be tolerated has actually done something wrong, something that will require a gesture of goodwill, even mercy, if they are not to be condemned in some manner. I think most people see this implication quite clearly in most uses of the term, and I think that is precisely why we do not normally ask for tolerance of blacks? Jews? Mexicans? …or people from New Jersey. We don’t normally ask people to tolerate different ethnic groups, precisely because that’s a rather damning defense of them.
If you are serious about defending the rights of minorities, then an appeal to tolerance is not how you would go about it. So, why is this continually the go-to principal for defense of homosexuality?
Tolerance is what one grants to kids that are acting up, to drunks that are getting loud, or to obnoxious customers when one is unfortunate enough to work in customer service. Tolerance is what one extends to people, not because they deserve it, but because you are feeling especially generous today (or when the boss is paying you to accept fecal input without complaint).
And therein lies the liver of this problem. Lots of people ‘tolerate’ homosexuality. …which is to say that they don’t scream and point, or get out a baseball bat when they see folks of homosexual orientation. They might not even fire a gay or bisexual worker at the first sign of good fashion sense, and that is the extent of their tolerance. And some folks congratulate themselves on their lack of violent and overt hostility. They think they are doing very well because they don’t attack or openly condemn homosexuals, at least not literally. But of course the very logic of tolerance suggests that they reserve the option to do so. …to express their disapproval if and when the mood strikes them.
Tolerance is what one extends to others out of personal largess. It’s a kindness one does for others when one isn’t feeling a little left of their own mind on any given day. This kind gesture goes to the glory of the one doing the tolerating, not the person tolerated. The object of toleration is, in a sense, demeaned by the implication that he requires this treatment for one reason or another.
Tolerance is a gift, and the problem is the gift is given or not given at the whim of the giver.
Advocating tolerance is like asking people to be nice. Folks may or they may not go along with it, but the request does little to foster the notion that there is anything obligatory about the matter. Granted, a willingness to accept people as they really are might be implied somewhere in notion, and that’s a damned fine value if someone truly embraces it. But for every individual that truly takes that message to heart there are many more who learn by the virtue of ‘tolerance’ to set their jaws and be quiet, sit an extra chair over from the offending party and go about their business, or just generally let it slide …for now.
As a substantive agenda, this is begging for scraps. And it’s settling for a truce while the enemy keeps his guns pointed. (…yes, we can produce additional metaphors, but you get the idea.)
I’d rather enter the debate with a little more muscle. To the degree that this is a public issue at all, it is an issue that involves rights. And rights are not asked for. They are not requested, and they are not presented as optional. One does not prove oneself to be an exceptionally good person by recognizing the rights of another. It is expected.
Rights are demanded. One should not be asking folks, for example, to tolerate a homosexual in the work place; one should be making it clear that mistreatment is not an option. It is not that someone would be nicer if they didn’t condemn the gay friend at a social outing; they should be informed clearly that doing so will not be …tolerated.
Told you I was against tolerance.