What we mean when we talk about “tolerance.”

Here’s something that has happened regularly every so often since I was a kid: A bigot who happens to be a conservative says something bigoted, and liberals object to it.  The bigot then points to this as an example of liberal hypocrisy, because liberals claim they want tolerance but they’re not being tolerant to him!  (You can find bigots in any political group, but liberal bigots have different defense mechanisms when called on their bigotry.)  (Also, it is AMAZING to me how hypocritical bigots themselves are.  They believe they have a right to spew any kind of nasty things they want about people they don’t like, but if you point out their own flaws and how nasty they are being, why, you are a horrible person for being so mean to them.)

No, tolerance is not hypocrisy.  But the fact that this is a regular argument is proof that a lot of people (mostly, but not all of them, conservatives) really do not understand what tolerance means when used by liberals.  (Either that or they do understand, and they are purposefully trying to mislead people about it.)  The situation is not helped by the fact that many liberals may have an emotional or gut-level understanding of tolerance, but often have trouble explaining the concept in a clear and concise way.

Tolerance does not mean “anything goes.”  It never has, and it probably never will.  Let me repeat that: Tolerance does not mean “anything goes.”  I know a lot of the more polemical conservatives like to claim it does, so they can whip up emotional reactions to “those immoral liberals who are ruining our nation and who are also hypocrites” but this is not true.

Since it has come around again in current political discussions, I thought I would explain the concept with the two main models liberals are generally working from: tolerance as morality, and tolerance as a peace treaty.

Model One: Tolerance as a Moral Principle

Believe it or not, this does not mean that tolerance is the moral principle itself; rather, tolerance is how the principle is expressed in practiceThe moral principle involved is that all human beings are people with human rights.  All human beings, no exceptions.  (As a Christian, I believe this because all people are created in the image of God, but you don’t have to be a Christian to believe in this particular moral principle.)  Race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, age, physical ability, neurotype (i.e. whether their brain works “normally” or not), and any other category you can think of are irrelevant.  All human beings are people, in the most fundamental sense possible.  Now, you may find this obvious to state, but the thing is, when you get right down to it most people don’t think all human beings are people.  In their gut, there are “people (those who are like me and my family and friends)” and there are “others” who aren’t really people, but rather stereotypes and cardboard cutouts and possibly objects to possess.  If you’ve ever wondered how people can do terrible things to other human beings–bullying, torture, rape, viciousness, all the horrors one human being can do to another–the answer is that they don’t really see their victims as people.  This is also where the bigot’s hypocrisy over not being able to handle other people calling them out on their bigotry comes from.  They believe they themselves are people, so anything that hurts them is bad.  But the people they hate are not real people, so hurting them is just fine.

If you see all human beings as “people” no matter how different from you they are, then it is a LOT harder to treat them badly.  They have human rights, dignity, worth.  They matter, and not just as faceless masses, but as individuals and communities.  Once you have taken this step, the question becomes, “how do we treat people in a way that reflects their inherent humanity?” The answer is “Tolerance.”  Yes, people may be very different.  They are still people!  People may live in ways that I would not want to, do and think things that are foreign to me, and guess what?  They are still people, with a right to live the way they choose.  Even if I would never, ever, EVER choose to live that way?  They are human beings, who have the fundamental human right of choosing how they want to live.  Think of it this way: would you want people from another culture who didn’t understand you to come in and judge you or attack you for not being more like them?  No?  Then don’t do it to other people!

Tolerance is not a moral principle.  Tolerance is a guideline for living out the moral principle that all human beings are people with human rights.

But it still doesn’t mean that anything goes and you make no moral judgments.  Because one of those fundamental human rights that all human beings possess is the right to live in safety.  The right to not be oppressed or abused.  So therefore, oppressive and abusive forces are bad.  Violence and things that hurt people are bad.  They should be stopped.

But Anna, you say, what about times when the violent abusive thing is part of another culture?  How does tolerance work then?  Well, first off, remember that the inherent moral principle at work is that “all human beings are people.”  They’re not savages to be uplifted and civilized, nor children to be disciplined and patronized.  And we all have biases and blind spots, and a tendency to assume that different=bad.  So the first step is to make sure that the thing you don’t like is actually hurting people (and not just making you uncomfortable because it’s different), and the second step is to support those people within that culture who are already working against it, instead of taking point yourself.  For example, are there misogynistic aspects to some Muslim teachings?  Sure!  There are also misogynistic aspects to some Christian teachings.  And a lot of Muslim feminists (and yes, they exist!) argue very persuasively that women covering their hair is no more inherently oppressive than the Western beauty ideals that require huge amounts of time and money for makeup, hairstyling, clothing, and other things in order not to be judged as a “slob.”  The point is, if there is something genuinely harmful and oppressive in a different culture, the best way to help is to find the members of that culture who are already working on the issue, and then listen to their perspective instead of assuming that you know more about things than they do.  Everyone has a right and a duty to work against the negative parts of their own culture.  We don’t have a right to assume that our culture is automatically better than everyone else’s and our way is best for everyone and we can solve all their problems by making them just like us.  This doesn’t mean we can’t make moral judgments about those who are different from us, but it does mean that we should be careful and humble about doing so.

But back to the bigots claiming “liberal hypocrisy” when liberals call them on their bigotry.  “They claim to be soooo tolerant, but then they get in my face when I say what I want to!”  Remember, tolerance is not the moral principle.  Tolerance is a way to live according to the moral principle that all human beings are people with human rights.  And if you are spewing racism, misogyny, classism, ableism, homophobia, etc., etc., you are directly attacking the humanity of the people you are bigoted about.  You are creating the conditions that lead to all sorts of horrors.  Systematic oppression–everything from Jim Crow to slavery to concentration camps–requires first that you convince everyone that some human beings are not people.  Words matter.  And if you are doing things that directly hurt people, especially if you’re doing it just because they are different from you?  That is, again, a DIRECT ATTACK on the fundamental moral principle that all human beings are people with inherent dignity and human rights that should be respected.  And if you are a “normal” American, then what I said earlier about respecting different culture doesn’t apply, because you are a part of our common American culture and you are actively making that culture worse.

It is not hypocritical to temporarily set aside a guideline (such as tolerance) to deal with a threat to the deeper moral principle (that all human beings are people with inherent dignity and human rights).  In fact, you know what would be hypocritical?  Setting aside the moral principle to cling to the guideline.  Saying “We know this member of our culture is saying and doing things that hurt people, but we have to tolerate everything, no matter what, so I guess they can go around hurting anyone they like.”  (And, believe you me, there are plenty of liberals who are steeped in this hypocrisy.  But, since it is convenient to bigots, it’s not one the bigots ever notice.)

That’s one model of tolerance as used by liberals in America.  But there is another.

Model Two: Tolerance as a peace treaty

The other model of tolerance is not a moral principle at all.  This is tolerance as a peace treaty.  Basically, it works like this.  Most people can agree that living in peace is better than being at war with one another, yes?  Whether that is literal (two countries fighting) or figurative (two groups within the same society fighting).  To prevent wars, we have these things called peace treaties.  Which, when you boil them down to their most basic level, say “you don’t attack us and we won’t attack you.”  We don’t have to like each other, we don’t have to approve of each other, we just have to say “you do you, I’m going to do me, we’re not going to fight about it.”  When we’re talking about different groups and people within the same society, that peace treaty is called tolerance.  It is designed to keep people from being at each others’ throats so we can all live in peace.  ‘Tolerance as a peace treaty’ is not a moral principle; it is a practical guide for lowering conflict in society.

But the thing about peace treaties is, they aren’t shackles to prevent self-defense.  If countries X and Y have a peace treaty, and Country Y starts talking about how horrible those people over in Country X are, Country X has a right to object.  If Country Y starts massing troops on the border, Country X has a right to go on a heightened state of alert and get pretty loud about objecting.  If Country Y sends in the troops, Country X has a right to defend itself.  In this scenario, Country X and Country Y are fighting, but only one of them (Country Y) has broken the peace treaty.  It would be completely nonsensical to look at Country X and accuse them of hypocrisy and breaking the peace treaty.  They did not.  Country Y did.  Country X is defending itself.  And if both Country X and Country Y have peace treaties with other nations, and some of those other nations decide that Country Y has broken those treaties and so they decide to help Country X?  Those countries are not hypocrites, nor are they breaking any treaties, because the attacking country already broke the treaties.  Self-defense is not hypocrisy.  Nor is defense of your friends and allies.

On a social level, bigots spouting off verbally against the groups they hate can be the equivalent of anything from saber-rattling to massing troops on the border, depending on the circumstances.  Enacting laws and policies that hurt the group they hate is the equivalent of invading.  So is physical attack or police brutality or anything like that.  And people have a right to defend themselves and their communities.  And this is not hypocrisy.  The bigots, by their words and actions, have already broken the peace treaty of tolerance.  They don’t get to claim that they can attack anyone they with immunity, but anyone who defends themselves or others is a hypocrite.

These two models are the basis for how liberals think about tolerance.  I hope this helps you understand the underlying issues.  It would be wonderful if everybody could figure this out and so we wouldn’t keep going around and around with the same argument we’ve been having since I was a kid, but I hold out no hope that it will go away any time soon.


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