Monday, October 31, 2011

Toleration, Attitude or Latitude?

That the corruption of the best things produces the worst….
                                                                                     David Hume

Banish the word “Intolerance.”   It is crudely and stupidly used. Those so fond of throwing it around are the worst offenders. What exactly is it that makes a person intolerant and, whatever it is, should we tolerate it or him?
Everyone is intolerant.   No one tolerates everyone or everything, nor should they.  Even Unitarians who pride themselves on their tolerant, open mindedness would not likely tolerate wife beaters, Hummer owners or members of the Mara Salvatrucha in their midst.   Consider, as suggested above, the paradox arising from:  “I will not tolerate intolerance.”   Tolerance by itself doesn’t go far.  Tolerance is less about attitude than latitude, that is, giving space to someone who advocates something you do not like or has beliefs that you disapprove of.  Being tolerant doesn’t mean that you cannot strongly disapprove of someone else’s politics, religion or moral views or that you cannot say that you disapprove.  It means that you must observe certain limits when you engage someone with opposing views or perspectives.   You attempt to separate your opponent as a person from his views.  You doubt his ideas, not his character.  You question his logic, not his reputation.   Ad hominem attacks and character assassination attempt to cut that “space” of toleration away.  They disqualify the critic as a person so that he or she cannot be taken seriously.   
The practice of toleration arose in the West as a way for individuals in competing and antithetical religious sects and denominations to live in proximity without violent conflict or attempts at subjugation.  It was understood that the competing sectarians disapproved of the religious ideas of each other but agreed not to attempt to infer with their mutual practice.   This initial sectarian “cease fire” over time evolved into an elaborate set of norms gathered under the umbrella of a “practice of toleration” that provided social space and compatibility for individuals with irreconcilable religious and philosophical views of reality. So, while rival sectarians might disapprove, strongly even, of each others ideas and views, they could still do business with each other and agree to rules of governance and order, including rules that governed dispute.
Over time two things emerged that shaped this practice of toleration.  First was a sense of intellectual fallibility – a realization that one’s ideas and interpretations might be flawed.  Second was the necessity to accord an appropriate level of respect to those with whom one disagreed.  Intellectual humility and a willingness to accord respect are closely linked.
Unfortunately, “being intolerant” is now widely confused with “disapproving” of someone, which is perverse.  You only tolerate what you disapprove of.   If you approve, toleration does not even come into play.   One of the greatest achievements of American political culture is that is that has made room for individuals from enormously diverse religious, ideological, political and social worlds to operate and compete in relative peace. Competing for influence and a voice are fundamentalist Christians, secular, humanistic atheists, Communists, free-market libertarians, survivalists, and so on across the entire social-political spectrum.  No one should be naive enough to think that individuals from such diverse and sometimes antithetical perspectives will be rhetorically gentle with each other.  
The Left, however, has come to embrace the equation of “disapproval equals intolerance” which they apply selectively, that is, to their critics, not to themselves.  For themselves they require admiration; for their opposition, contempt.  A few short years ago when they routinely called George W. Bush “stupid,” “a war criminal,” and a “Fascist,” they were simply stating facts and exercising their right to dissent.  After they won, the bar was suddenly lifted very high for the opposition: respect, civility, loyal opposition.  
How did this happen?  Long ago the Left lost any sense of fallibility and with it any tolerance for criticism.  For them, criticism equals intolerance and bigotry. Because they are infallible, their ideas cannot possibly be wrong or flawed. Anyone who disagrees must be defective, either intellectually or morally. 

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