Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On Tolerance

Not too long ago I was involved in a discussion. The details of the conversation aren't important and might be private, so let me present it schematically. Party A engaged in behavior that Party B condemned. Party A called for "tolerance" by Party B. Party B continued to condemn Party A's behavior, on the basis of Party B's deeply held religious beliefs. Party A called Party B a "bigot" for continuing to condemn. Party B objected that Party A cannot call for "tolerance" with one hand while condemning Party B's religious beliefs as "bigoted" with the other. It was about this time that I entered the conversation, and asked: Why not? I think that tolerance is an important civic virtue - perhaps the quintessential civic virtue - but it seems to me that it's often stretched to the breaking point these days. The problem, I think, arises when people conflate tolerance with acceptance. By acceptance, I mean a personal belief that a thing is right or good, or at the very least not bad or wrong. Either way, a person who accepts something has no objection to it. Tolerance is very different. By tolerance, I mean a personal belief that a thing is wrong or bad, and a personal refusal to act against the thing. In order to tolerate something, you must believe that it is wrong or bad. I think these are self-evidently different concepts, though we might quibble over what to call them. To illustrate the intuition behind my definitions, let me give three personal examples. Example the first: I think that democracy is a truer governmental philosophy than autocracy. Example the second: I have no long-standing preference for pepperoni and pineapple pizzas over pepperoni and feta pizzas, or vice versa. Example the third: I believe it is bad when parents refuse to let their children watch TV or movies. Now consider the following: does it feel like vernacular English to say that I tolerate democracy? Or even that I tolerate pepperoni and pineapple (or pepperoni and feta) pizzas? Not to me. Does it feel like vernacular English to say that I accept parents refusing to let their children watch TV? Not to me. Not even if we add in the knowledge that I would abide by that parent's wishes with respect to those children. I don't accept that; I merely restrict the scope of my objection. In short, I tolerate it. And that is why I think tolerance is such an important civic virtue. People are going to disagree. Tolerance is the lubricant that allows people who disagree to get on with the business of living with each other. "Tolerance" has become enshrined in American culture as a treasured national virtue, so much so that people wave it like a flag over their cause du jour. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's important that we keep in mind what tolerance is and isn't. Suppose I say to you, "I want everybody to show some tolerance for my lifestyle." If I really mean, "I want everybody to accept my lifestyle," then I am setting myself up for failure, disappointment, and likely bitterness. It is inevitable that people are going to disapprove of my lifestyle. That is the nature of people, and the nature of lifestyles. But it is realistic, I think, to ask that even those people who disapprove of my lifestyle not actively try to destroy it - or at least try to destroy it through specified, limited channels. It is not possible for my every neighbor to approve of my lifestyle. It is possible for me to ask my neighbor, who disapproves of my lifestyle, to limit his attempts to destroy my lifestyle to polite discourse. I use the term destroy advisedly, because I want to acknowledge that to disapprove of something is to deem it worthy of non-existence. Let's say I believe that women deserve political rights equal to those of men. This is a description of how I think the universe is structured, morally. It follows that, all else being equal, the universe would be better if there were no places where women have political rights unequal to those of men. So why don't I advocate for regime change in - well, pretty much the whole world? Because I think that the process of destroying this particular bad thing - unequal women's rights - would be worse than the thing itself. This is the essence of tolerance, this ability to say, "X is bad, but not as bad as getting rid of X." The essence of tolerance is not, "X seems bad to the ignorant and the bigoted, but the wise and enlightened recognize it as good." The virtues of this kind of tolerance are many. For one, it's an achievable ideal (at least compared to the ideal of "everybody should accept everything." For another, it respects the individual's right to believe. For a third, it encourages society to exercise its ability to discriminate moral issues. In order to have tolerance, a person must make two judgment calls: first, whether the thing itself is good or bad; and second, if the thing is bad, whether a given antidote is better or worse. Is this not the sort of society we want, where people are accustomed to making these calls? Are these not the very calls that underlie our most beloved tolerances? Consider religious tolerance. Surely nobody thinks that all religions are equally good, or even that all religions are good at all. Religious tolerance is founded on two beliefs: first, that some or all religions are bad; and second, that the evils engendered by religion are better than the evils engendered by a government trying to identify the good religions. Or, from the other side of the coin, consider the criminal code. Criminal codes arise when a society says, "We will not tolerate that; the punishment we inflict upon you may be evil, but better that evil than permitting you to continue unchecked." Sometimes society needs to make that call. Let us not get out of the habit.

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