Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Tolerance

It happens all the time: some word or phrase or idea resonates with public opinion and lodges itself in our collective consciousness. Before long, some pundit whose job it is to manufacture opinions for those who can't form their own has recognized its power and co-opted it beyond recognition.

I see this happening to the idea of racism lately: it used to mean the tendency to form judgments of another human being solely on the basis of his/her race. Every civilized person knows that the world would be a better place if we could rise above this mentality, so one tends to feel a pang of conscience when denounced as racist, and tends to have a negative feeling about someone else who has been so criticized. We let our intuitions do what intuitions do best: file away the complexities and make up a shorthand: "racism = bad". That's when the opinion mills go into operation, misusing the word, extending and/or completely hijacking its meaning, and we get opponents of Muhammadanismistism being called racists. Damn, now it looks like I'm defending myself against being accused of racism. No, nothing like that; the last time I was called a racist was when I posted a question to an biology forum asking why Europeans and Aboriginal Australians are able to have children. I use this co-opting of the idea of racism as an example because I assume that it's fairly fresh in everyone's mind.

Another idea that was rendered utterly unusable a long time ago is the idea of tolerance. Because tolerance of the cultural differences among societies and individuals seems to promote public harmony, our intuitions have functioned properly in giving us "tolerance = good" and "intolerance = bad". Unfortunately, we in general have forgotten the complexities of the idea. Consider this article, published in the Washington Post on September 13, 2010. In it we find a gay couple on terribly thin ice. One man is a foreigner, a Latino, living in the U.S. under false pretenses, i.e., illegally. The other man is a U.S. citizen and a "prominent Republican whose identity could easily lead authorities to the other man".

Once you've had a chance to let your outrage settle, consider what genuine tolerance could do for society: these two men would not have to be in hiding, they would not have to do anything illegal, they would not be appalling hypocrites. They could come out--better yet, if we were tolerant, they could just be out from the beginning, no coming out required. They could get married, and the Latino partner would become a citizen. Nothing at all wrong with that. Lots and lots of Americans marry foreigners, and I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the vast majority of them are marrying not for nefarious purposes, but for love. As one of these partners said himself, "gays and lesbians fall in love in the same unpredictable way as straight people. Sometimes, the object of that love happens to be a foreigner."

Unfortunately, tolerance, in the sense in which it is bandied about in today's public discourse, does not extend universally to people whose sexuality goes beyond the limits set by homophobic and superstitious (not to mention racist) camel herders several thousand years ago. No, tolerance now seems to mean sitting idly by while religious fanatics attempt to install a theocracy. I am infinitely tolerant of your superstitions. I once had a girlfriend who was convinced that she could find water with a couple of bent coat hangers. Didn't bother me a bit, although if we had ever gone camping in the desert, I would have taken enough water to keep myself alive, regardless of any objections she might have made while packing her coat hangers.

By all means, believe whatever you want. I'll never be your friend, as you fully intend, after watching me being cast into unending torment, to praise eternally the monster that threw me in. I would no more be your friend than I would befriend an active pedophile. And yes, for the record, I deem your intentions for eternity at least as wicked as the relatively short-lived intentions of a disgusting pervert. Although I find your beliefs despicable, I fully support your right to have them, and to worship any hideous deity you choose. But tolerance of cultural differences does not require anyone to sit back while you destroy us.

It's time for us to reset our collective perception of what tolerance means. Don't let theocrats drag us back to the Dark Ages. Speak up! And don't forget to vote.

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