Monday, December 18, 2006

Tolerance

I've had an email or two from friends asking me about the backstory to the craziness going on in the comments at Zendo Deb's and, to a lesser extent, here.

The backstory is, I can't tell you much about the backstory, because the backstory occurs in a locked Google group and, as one of its former members, I agreed to keep all discussion occurring in the group confidential. That's an agreement I'm happy to respect. It's also an easy one for me to respect because I've long since deleted any messages I might have had from it.

I do, however, reserve the right to talk about two things:

1. My reactions to some of the things I saw go on in the group, and
2. Any email that was not explicitly contained in the group. It goes out of group and into my inbox? Then it's property of me, myself, and I, baby.

I don't think I'll actually need to reference either of the above items to discuss the title of today's post, however. There's this confusion--deliberate, I think, in many cases--on the right side of the blogosphere with regards to tolerance. You'll see conversations like this:

Person 1: I really liked Stanley Kurtz's response to Andrew Sullivan. Didja read that one? It was great!

Person 2: Sorry, I don't agree with Kurtz. I see no reason why same-sex marriage shouldn't be legal.

Person 1: Marriage is between a man and a woman only!

Person 2: That's discriminatory to gays and lesbians. Marriage should be an agreement between two consenting adults.

Person 1: It's not discriminatory! Why should homosexuals get special rights, huh?

Person 2: They're not special rights, they're the same rights heterosexuals have already.

Person 1: I can't believe this! You mean you'd be okay with two guys living next door to you? Doing things together? Kissing each other goodbye every morning, in front of your kids and everything?

Person 2: [backing away slowly] Okay, you know what? I never realized you were such a bigot before. I, uh, I gotta run.

Person 1: Oh, priceless! The liberal's running away from an honest debate! HOW VERY TOLERANT is The Left!

And that brings me to item one of what tolerance isn't:

1. "Tolerance" isn't according all opinions equal weight unreservedly.

I don't respect the opinions of September 11 conspiracy theorists. I don't respect the opinions expressed in The Protocols of the Elder Zion. I don't respect the opinions of the KKK Grand Wizard, whoever he is. I don't respect the opinions of bigots, crackpots, hucksters, TRex, or Sean Hannity.

Each of us making informed decisions about which opinions have merit, which opinions should or should not be considered and addressed respectfully, is not "intolerance." Which is why every time a righty whips out a line about The Intolerant Left, he looks like an imbecile--because he is being one.

It's not that your lefty opponent is intolerant of your opinion, imbecile. It's that your lefty opponent thinks your opinion is without merit.

See also piny, probably the best writer the blogosphere has on this subject:

It’s the ol’ “tolerance of intolerance” chestnut, in other words. If you complain when someone attempts to criminalize your life, you’re not allowed to point out that he’s secretly just like you.

The second thing I'm just going to leap into without preamble:

2. "Tolerance" isn't quite the virtue you may think it is.

I have got to learn to be better about bookmarking posts I may want to revisit later because AS USUAL, there's one I can't find for this that I wanted. Astonishingly enough, I think this one was also by piny.

I'll have to get by here on a few definitions from the dictionary, tiresome as that is:

Main Entry: tol·er·ance

Pronunciation: 'tä-l&-r&n(t)s, 'täl-r&n(t)s

Function: noun

2 a : sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own b : the act of allowing something : TOLERATION

3 : the allowable deviation from a standard; especially : the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece

You don't, I don't, and nobody does get a cookie for showing "sympathy or indulgence" to homosexuals, people of color, Jews, Muslims, or any other persons against whom rank prejudice has traditionally been leveled. The concept of tolerating "beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own"* has a colloquial synonym: To put up with. Archaically it had another: To suffer. It implies me up here, putting up with you down there--hopefully only temporarily and not for long, because my goodness you're insufferable, and I am very busy today. "Tolerance" is patronizing at its root.

Definition 3 isn't any nobler: The allowable deviation from a standard. That's fine with regards to materials and engineering, of course. With regards to human beings, however, this is why I am glad I have read some Ayn Rand: Because doing so got me in the habit of looking at phrases like "the allowable deviation from a standard" and immediately asking, "Who decides? Allowable by whom? Who determines the standard? Who determines the allowable deviation?"

The answer from social conservatives to each and every one of those questions has been issued clearly over and over again: White male Christians will decide. White male Christians will allow (or not). White male Christians will determine the standard, and it is themselves. White male Christians will determine the deviation, and it will be very small indeed, composed only of those deviants who say things the white male Christians like to hear (mainly, how rotten all the other deviants are).

That's who will decide the allowable deviation from the standard. Observing this requires only that you open your eyes and listen with your ears, but you can depend that the mere act of observing this will be portrayed as attacking and being hateful to, yes, white male Christian. Pay no attention to that man behind, etc.

Defensiveness is so out of control on the right that merely pointing out what's out there in plain sight is now considered a hostile act. And when it absolutely can't be rendered an act of hostility, it's painted as an act born of paranoia--see also, "Oh, you feminists, always blaming that nebulous patriarchy for your problems," or, "Oh right, I forgot that white male Christians are trying to bring about a theocracy. Why aren't you in a reeducation camp then, huh? If there's such a raging thee-AWK-ra-see in this country, I mean."

On the wall outside the registration office at my university are portraits of all the former deans of the school. They are all white. They are all male, and while it would be crazy to assume they have all been Christians just based on their portraits, it would be downright fatuous to assume the majority of them weren't. And according to some on the right, it is a hostile, paranoid, victim-glorifying thing for me to tell you this, however true it is.

I think it's fair and not particularly paranoid for me to wonder at this point for how much longer we'll be allowed to point out that the sky is blue.

I don't really like the word "tolerance," or its cousin "toleration," for all the reasons pointed out above and then some. But these are the words we use, even when we really mean "acceptance" or "mutual respect" or simply "live and let live" and even, "not being a hate-filled pus bag." So for now, I'll stick with it.

Finally, thoughts not specifically on what tolerance isn't, but on the subject in general:

3. Noting intolerance where it exists is not "identity politics," "victim politics," or any kind of politics at all. It is observing phenomena and calling attention to it. Human beings depend on their powers of observation for survival; we have wielded these powers for millennia. Turn off the talk radio and read a fucking biology book before you pull this nonsense again.

4. Being called out on your intolerance does not make you the "real" victim. It means another person thinks you have been intolerant, or are an intolerant person chronically and in general. You are free to dispute that on the merits or lack thereof. You are also free to throw a big ol' tantrum and cry about it, but that's what ear plugs are for--to spare the rest of us from it.

5. If you wish to appear tolerant, you must be tolerant. If you do not wish to appear tolerant, you must own up to your intolerance. It would be best for some on the right to ensure they all turn to the same page of the playbook--either the page that says "Of course I'm intolerant of queers, they're sinning against God and corrupting our country," OR the page that says "I am tolerant of GLBTs and won't associate with those who are not, for by tolerating their intolerance I inadvertently help to perpetuate it; further, by offending my friends, the intolerant offend me." But pick a page and stick with it, because trying to have it both ways doesn't work.


*I think this definition would be better if it included, along with beliefs and practices, identities differing from or conflicting with one's own. But I don't work at Merriam-Webster.

10 comments:

wolfa said...

Frankly, I would often be happy to just get tolerance. Sure, it's a bare minimum for civil society -- but we're not there anyhow, nor anywhere near.

Straight, upper middle class, white male Christians.

belledame222 said...

well, i dunno this one, but all's i have to say after reading this is: you go.

personally i don't want to be "tolerated." "Toleration" is what you do with, like, the three year old pulling on your hair. Civil rights are not dependent on the magnanimousness of the people in power, and it's about time more people became cognizant of it.

Anonymous said...

*Holds hand up as one of those who asked for background*

I stil don't get it, and I'm not a short-bus rider. I did try. I even read it twice while allegedly listening to a conference call. I think it has the backbone in the locked Google discussion you referred to, so that if we were part of that we'd be all: "I TOTALLY know what's the background here."

Instead I offer this: I noticed some comments from some folk that they don't back people up because said attacked folk asked them. I say: "Then you have no friends. Friends don't let friends blog argue drunk. Left, right, marriage, marriage bust up, fuck it."

It all looks ugly from this seat, and the attacks on you very personal, which is naughty on many, many levels. That, and the ugly attacks show some people for whom they really are.

-Helen

gennimcmahon said...

(pats seat next to her on short bus, then waves frantically at Helen, shrieking her name and hopping up and down....it *is* the short bus, after all)

Sometimes I read something and think, "I am clearly too stupid to follow this, and should stop trying to play in the big leagues..." But, I think the issue of the perception of tolerance remains valid, even if I don't know what begat the wretched name calling.

I very much appreciate your drawing attention to the fact that tolerance is a state of being that implies superiority smiling patiently at inferiority. Belledame222 is right, one tolerates the three year old (for a time, then one loses one's mind and calls the three year old's father and threatens divorce if he's late getting home from work...) because the adult is superior to the child, and recognizes the child's inability to control itself. This is the same attitude used to justify all kinds of de-humanizing attitudes throughout the centuries. If tolerance is the very best you can manage, fine, but don't be patting yourself on the back during the sermon. You (white Christians) were asked to Love Thy Neighbor, not Tolerate Thy Neighbor While Gossiping About Them To Your Best Friend and Telling Your Children That They're Going To Hell.

sheila said...

Ilyka - great post.

The whole "tolerance" thing has pissed me off for years - I've always thought it was a condescending term.

And I loved this part as well:

//I don't respect the opinions of September 11 conspiracy theorists. I don't respect the opinions expressed in The Protocols of the Elder Zion. I don't respect the opinions of the KKK Grand Wizard, whoever he is. I don't respect the opinions of bigots, crackpots, hucksters, TRex, or Sean Hannity.//

Exactly.

Anonymous said...

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH.

You (white Christians) were asked to Love Thy Neighbor, not Tolerate Thy Neighbor While Gossiping About Them To Your Best Friend and Telling Your Children That They're Going To Hell.

That? That needs tattooing on the back of some necks in a smallish enough font that it will fade to the front of the neck. That was fucking great and-from what this short-bus rider can make of this talcum powder bomb, accurate.

*goes off grumbling that Genni words things better again dammit*

-Helen

ilyka said...

*goes off grumbling that Genni words things better again dammit*

Try going to lunch with her! She can do that, like, face to face. Without a monitor! Without typing! I do not understand it. I just marvel at it.

Zendo Deb said...

Thanks again for the support....

In terms of the "background" there isn't much to the story. A bunch of heterosexual Christian (in name anyway) conservatives feel they are superior to everyone else - and they have trouble with tolerance..

They also want to arrange the world so that people like them are happy and everyone else can just go pound sand.

As Ilyka says, there isn't anything new about this under the sun. The KKK is the "perfect" example of a fine upstanding "Christian" organization that is completely comfortable trying to force the world into their view, and is willing to use any means to make that happen. In the case of the Klan, they use terror. In the case of most Christians, they just rely on their control of the government. (And before you get your knickers in a knot, exactly how many Presidents of these United States have not been Christian?)

Zendo Deb said...

That isn't a trick question, because I can think of 1 President who doesn't fit the "standard Christian" definition.

Then you have to answer the question, "Are Masons Christian?" I know some Christians don't think so, I am less clear on what he Masons think.

Attila said...

Hm. I don't really get this. Is this about the Cotillion? After all, I'm in the Cotillion. Most of 'em have gay friends, and it's fairly well-known there that I'm bisexual.

I certainly don't remember that discussion at all, but of course I don't participate in a lot of these threads: too many demands on my time.

I'd be willing to bet that those Cotillion-ites who don't favor same-sex marriage (for religious reasons, because they are linguistic conservatives who don't want the word to change its meaning) are in favor of civil unions. (Me? I think the state should get out of the marriage business, and all such partnerships should be civil unions.)

So I'm rather perplexed at the notion that the Cotillion is harboring a bunch of homophobes.