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Tolerating Discussions about Tolerance

Here's your Christmas Week Challenge: ask family members, friends, or perhaps even strangers whether or not they believe it is a good thing for a society to become increasingly tolerant. It has been my experience that, even if the people we ask qualify their answers to some degree, approximately 9.9 out of 10 people will affirm that more tolerance is a good thing. Then they might say something encouraging about how American society is more tolerant than it used to be (and even cite statistical proof), or they may lament a personal anecdote or a news story that they believe proves society is just as intolerant as ever.

The problem is, as much as we ardently support tolerance, there is an apparent lack of clarity about what tolerance actually means. To some, being tolerant entails one respectfully allowing others to think, speak, and act in ways that one finds disagreeable. To others, being tolerant entails the added layer of refusing to label any thoughts, words, or actions as being wrong or in any way inferior to other thoughts, words, or actions (value judgments are frowned upon...other than the value judgment that value judgments should be frowned upon). These are just two of the many, many takes on what tolerance means and how it applies in practice. 

Consequently, discussions about tolerance are descending into a confusing mess. You will find Christians getting upset around the Christmas season because they believe fewer and fewer people are willing to say "Merry Christmas." You will find remarks from the patriarch of Duck Dynasty sparking discussions about the First Amendment, hate speech, and whether or not people from Louisiana have enough experience with matters of race to give intelligent opinions about slavery and civil rights. We have a lot to say about tolerance, but we speak past each other by employing the same terminology even though we disagree (knowingly or not) about what the terminology actually means.

For the sake of hopefully giving the tolerance discussion a bit more clarity, I am going to present some questions intended to help us think more deeply about what tolerance actually means and how we can have meaningful conversations about how we should respond to people when we disagree with their thoughts, words, and behaviors. I have also included a short "preview" response to each question to give some hints about why I am asking each question. Note: Answers to all of these questions depend somewhat on how we define tolerance. This admittedly makes answering the following questions tricky since the definition of tolerance is so unclear, but attempting to answer these questions can still be a fruitful exercise. 

1. Can a society become more tolerant? Less tolerant? Can one society be more tolerant than another?

I am not sure it makes sense to say that a society can be more or less tolerant since, socially speaking, some values always have to "win the day." Illustration: In society "Y" it used to be perfectly legal to talk about and eat bananas, but talking about and eating oranges was forbidden. Twenty years later, things changed and it became acceptable to talk about and eat oranges. Moreover, if you continued to speak publically about your disdain for oranges, you were looked down upon as being backwards and old-fashioned (or dare I say wrong?). Some might say that society Y has become more tolerant, but it might be more accurate to say that society experiences just as much intolerance as before. Since eating oranges now wins the day, society Y tolerates orange-eaters, but now becomes intolerant toward those who disapprove of orange-eaters. Values have changed, but not necessarily the collective amount of tolerance.

2. How should we treat people when we disagree with their thoughts, words, and actions? Should we let them be? Mock them in public? Imprison them?

This question is intended to demonstrate that, as much as we claim to be tolerant of people we disagree with, we react inconsistently to these people.

Illustration: You like peas and I don't? No problem. I'll let that be. You like Ford F-150 trucks and I like Silverados? You have the right to your opinion, but I'm going to write a blog article about how ridiculous your views are. You think it's fine to steal when necessary, and I disagree? I'm going to do everything in my power to make it illegal for you to steal.

See what I mean? We have to make judgments about what kinds of things we will tolerate. It means that value judgments must be made regardless of our desire to be tolerant.

3. Why do the "intolerant" or "hate" labels tend to shut down conversations?

In case you haven't noticed, you really, REALLY don't want to be known as "intolerant" or "hateful" in today's society. The question is, do we ever seriously consider why that is? I think it's because (wait for it) society considers tolerance to be a very GOOD thing, and therefore intolerance is a very BAD thing. Value judgments are being made! We want so badly to be tolerant that we can become viciously intolerant of those who are intolerant.

Why write about tolerance during the Christmas season? It seems that the holidays and heated discussions about tolerance go hand in hand. If you're looking for proof, Google "Christmas" and "tolerance" and see what happens. We also tend to spend an above average amount of time with family and friends during the Christmas season, and thus we discuss things (including sensitive topics like religion and politics) more than we normally do. The term "tolerance" tends to make its way into these discussions, and so do "shut-down" terms like "intolerance" and "hate". The minute you get the "intolerant" or "hate" label, you are essentially eliminated from the conversation, or at the very least your future comments are discounted. To be sure - this doesn't just happen at Christmas! Conversations all over the country in all seasons are consistently ended or subdued by the "intolerant" and "hate" labels. I think this is a disservice to everyone since it prohibits the exchange of fresh ideas and discourages people from disagreeing with the majority opinion.

I believe a more serious discussion about the meaning of tolerance will help reverse some of the troubling trends I just described. Let's use the questions I suggested, along with those you might suggest, to foster a more meaningful and honest discussion about tolerance. This week, perhaps the most significant discussion week of the year, is a great place to start.