The Place of Tolerance

“I’ve had enough of the falseness of a worn out relation, enough of the jealousy and the intoleration. Oh, I make you laugh, and you make me cry. I believe it’s time for me to fly” – REO Speedwagon, Time for me to Fly

A few days back we made a post that touched on the issue of tolerance, but only briefly. It generated some useful discussion, so I thought it reasonable to come back to the subject today. That, and I always wanted to start a post with an REO Speedwagon quote – but how often do you get a chance for that?

I’ll give you the ending first. It is my intention to show that tolerance, with a reasonable definition thereof, is perfectly consistent with my worldview of governance and personal morality. But, it is often the evangelists of tolerance that introduce the moral quandries/kerfuffles that we argue about, and by extension latent intolerance.

First, a definition; or a meandering one at least. We all know what it means to tolerate and annoying sibling or relative. You find them utterly displeasing and unacceptable, but you don’t do anything about it – you tolerate them. You do so for the sake of peace – you know well that you don’t have to be right all the time and just going along to get along can produce reasonable results. Note that this is a far cry from “acceptance.” We have a word for acceptance – acceptance. We don’t need to take a new word and make it mean acceptance.

Now, what does tolerance mean in our daily lives? Well, we can choose not to be jerks even if we feel we’re in the right. We can show kindness even if we greatly disagree with the other person. We are not out to settle any scores or prove any points (unless there is some greater destruction upon us if we don’t clear the air). This does not mean we can’t speak our minds – we certainly can. But the phrase “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) had better mean something to us.

I bring all of this up because this is not exactly what is usually meant by tolerance. The tolerance evangelists often mean acceptance. Maybe they don’t want to force personal acceptance (how could you?) but they do mean to force public acceptance. They will argue that public acceptance is a must – if it does not exist then we have second class citizens. This is a slippery slope.

In this sense, we have tolerance that presumes a moral structure. It presumes a baseline of what is right and what is wrong (e.g., with regards to homosexuality, adultery, theft, etc.) and demands public, governmental, enforcement equivalence. From the start this is in error. For tolerance to presume a moral structure (e.g., adultery is to be tolerated as long as the two participants are consenting adults) is to itself enforce intolerance. I believe adultery is wrong, and is not to be tolerated. If I see a friend’s husband or wife running around on them, I am dang well going to tell my friend – I would have them do the same for me.

So, we must reject tolerance that begins with a moral baseline. What is left? I argue that there are very few options left – few that any of us would recognize. The one that fits rather nicely in my worldview is that of human rights. Your personal moral behaviors do not, should not affect your human rights as long as your behavior does not violate any one else’s human rights. (The case of adultery obviously violates somebody else’s rights – a contract has been broken.)

Let us consider an example. My good friend EF points out that he knew an openly gay teacher in high school who received all sorts of grief from parents who didn’t want their children taught by an openly gay person. So now we have a problem. The parents should not have to abrogate their right of freedom of association. I personally think they should not be vocally lynch-mobish  about it, but they still have freedom of their own and for their children. What then, should this person be fired because parents object? A small group of parents could object to anything and you will never find a teacher that pleases everybody. (As for me, I haven’t thought about it for more than two seconds one way or the other. My kids are all homeschooled and my wife is straight, so it really isn’t a decision point I face.)

The problem with this situation is the set up. This is a public school teacher. Benevolent leaders, through the power of taxation, have seized private productive capacity to fund a school system and educate the children (for the good of us all). Can a gay person be excluded from a publicly funded and sanctioned workplace? They are a member of the public aren’t they? To exclude them is to enslave them and make them second class citizens (they must pay but cannot participate). Must parents be forced to pay for something they fundamentally oppose? To do so is to enslave them as well (they must pay to fund something they find morally reprehensible). The problem is the public school. Public funding of this institution demands a moral baseline, most likely one that is as morally permissive as possibly under current social norms.

In my worldview, there would be no such public funding. This teacher is free to apply for a job wherever they want, and parents are free to send their kids wherever they want. Does the teacher object that “it will be harder for me to find employment if people can choose to send their kids elsewhere”? I will respond that you have no right to employment. You have right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Go, live, be free, pursue – but you cannot enslave me  in your pursuits, for I too have rights.

Now, there are times when the law must step in ahead of tolerance. There are religious traditions that advocate selling female children into sexual slavery at a very young age. It is a religious observance. If we believe that all people have a right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, we cannot tolerate this.

There are religious traditions that encourage males to murder female family members suspected of sexual immorality – honor killings. It is a religious observance. If we believe that all people have a right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, we cannot tolerate this.

As for the rest, I reiterate that it is public intervention in what ought to be private personal behaviors that creates such a realm of conflicting tolerance. Once a public forum is set, using public funds, then there are all sorts of equal protection and freedom of association problems that set in. In my preferred form of governance, these things do not exist, and the question of tolerance becomes much more of a personal one. In the current framework however, tolerance assumes a morality and demands acceptance. It assumes a belief system (this or that is “OK”) and demands people accept the baseline or shut-up about it. But none of us should have to be second class citizens.

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One Response to The Place of Tolerance

  1. Very nice REO Speedwagon reference.

    Your distinction between tolerance and acceptance is an important and useful one. If I understand the choice of notation, tolerance is an agreement of governance, while acceptance is a personal ethical choice. That is, we must tolerate what does not infringe upon the rights of others… even if we do not accept as moral that which we tolerate. You go on to point out that the list of situations where this occurs could be a lot shorter if it were not for other problems.

    I buy that. In fact, I like that. I accept that :).

    So perhaps some clarification is in order. I took issue in my initial reply with the suggestion that Indonesian Muslims are “increasingly intolerant of other religions.” More precisely, I took issue with basing that inference on the responses to what seem to me to be leading questions in the survey. To not abuse notation as clarified in your latest post, I think it would be more accurate to say that “mind[ing] if a non-Muslim taught their children at school” indicates not intolerance, but lack of acceptance.

    I hope this street runs both ways. That is, to whatever extent we are comfortable with opposition to, or even harassment of, say, a lesbian teaching in our schools, then I hope that we are equally comfortable with equally vehement opposition by Muslims to the employment of non-Muslim teachers in their schools. What freedoms are being infringed in either case?

    Note how carefully I tried to phrase that. As you know, objectively, I think both premises (i.e., the Christian attitude toward homosexuality, and the Muslim attitude toward, well, non-Muslims) are faulty, unscientific, and frankly, ugly. That is, as a personal ethical choice, I do not accept them, despite tolerating them. I simply want to point out what they have in common logically.

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