Intolerant of the Intolerant and Outraged by the Outrageous

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Sooner or later, if you declare yourself as a supporter of liberal democracy, you’ll run into a thorny problem . Do you show tolerance for the intolerant? Can you permit the free speech of those who will destroy free speech? Should you give publicity to those who threaten a free press? Can you get disgusted with disgust or outraged by outrageous behavior?

How far are you willing to defend the rights of minorities? Will you stand up for the minority view that minorities have no rights? Do you value diversity without valuing diversity of opinion about diversity? These questions are not academic or rhetorical. I’m not just being cute. This is a real dilemma. The answers are hard.

Be careful what you say. You’re going to be held to what you believe. The only time you need tolerance is when the intolerable comes along. It’s meaningless to espouse free speech only when you like what they have to say. You can’t claim to believe in a free press while you’re the censor. Either you promote diversity or you don’t. There’s no two ways about it.

If you’re not going to stand up to them, how do you defend tolerance from the intolerant? Doesn’t permissiveness give them license to spew whatever hateful, vicious ideas they can think of? Isn’t this how authoritarianism and lies get a toehold in a democratic society? Sometimes freedom must be defended at the cost of freedom. As you may have heard, the Constitution is not a suicide pact.

No, it’s not a suicide pact; but, the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, is a radical, highly counter-intuitive document that has contradictions built into its design. A liberal society is still a relatively new thing in history and we don’t know if it can endure.

The paradox of tolerance, as it’s called, has engaged many philosophers and jurists throughout the short history of tolerance. I’m only an amateur philosopher and not at all a jurist, so I’ll leave it to them to sort out the absolutes. My objective here is to offer something that can help an ordinary citizen cope with, and maybe even sway, his or her neighbor, a neighbor who may be a bigoted, intolerant, disgusting, blow-hard.

The first thing you can do is define what you mean by tolerating the odious neighbor who flies the Confederate Flag and has a tattoo of a swastika on his neck. Anything short of murdering him for his beliefs is tolerating him, to some extent. There are some societies, at many points in human history, in which people felt justified to do just that. Take a look at the Inquisition, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the religious wars of the Reformation, to mention a few. Even the ancient Athenians, who we revere as models for our democracy, used exile as a means of social control of dissidents. Then there are the patriots of the American Revolution, who were not adverse to tarring and feathering Tories and running them out of town on a rail.

If you take execution, exile, and tarring and feathering off the table, you can claim that you do tolerate the intolerant. All you really need to do to hold the moral high ground is to be one click more tolerant of them than they are of others. For a Nazi, who may still think rounding up Jews to execute them in gas chambers is a good idea, being relatively tolerant shouldn’t be hard.

You don’t have to like your skin-head neighbor to be tolerant of him; nor do you have to be silent and not oppose what he proposes; but, because you took murder, exile, and running-out-of-town-on-a-rail off the table, you do have to live with him. Living with a Neo-Nazi next door would be hard and, if you’re a black or a Jew, or nearly anyone other than a Neo-Nazi, it might it impossible; but, even if you moved away, he would still be in your community. In this era of globalization, even people on the other side of the world are in your community.

The first order of business in learning how to live with the intolerant, is to cope, not with the Neo-Nazi next-door neighbor himself, but with your feelings about him. That where I come in, as a therapist.

You see, for us shrinks, everything comes down to dealing with feelings. If your stomach turns every time you come home and see your neighbor’s Confederate flag, you might wish you didn’t feel this way and you could tolerate diversity as well as you say you do; but you don’t. Furthermore, you’re apt to believe that, if you didn’t get upset, something would be wrong with you. You don’t want to be that guy who doesn’t care about bigotry. You worry that if you do not become enraged at racism, that means you’re getting soft on it.

As much as I dislike seeing people become enraged and having their stomachs upturned, I think you’re on to something there. Behind every feeling is a value and strong feelings indicate strong values. I like to think of emotions as the idiot light on your car; when it glows, you know there’s a problem with something important. Trying to live without feelings is like disregarding those warnings, it only preserves your peace of mind for a little while.

So, here’s my appendix to the paradox of tolerance. The more you value tolerance, the more intolerant you’re going to feel when you encounter intolerance. This is going to make you, and everyone else who sees you, question whether you believe in tolerance.

You can’t help but feel your feelings; they erupt naturally. You can no sooner will your toenails to stop growing. Your toenails are going to grow whether you want them to or not, but you can clip them. Similarly, if you value tolerance, you’re going to become enraged when you see intolerance; but you don’t have to act on that rage. The rage can simply be a signal that an important value is being threatened.

I know it’s hard not to act on rage or to suppress disgust, but that’s where your values come in. Your valuing tolerance both creates the rage and gives you a reason to suppress it. Suppressing your rage is what makes you different from your skinhead neighbor. He has rage, too. His values are being threatened, at least he believes they are; but he acts on that rage, or at least he threatens to act on it.

It’s good sometimes to remind yourself why you value tolerance, free speech, a free press, civility, and diversity. I value it because it allows us to live together, find higher ground, and develop the better angels of our nature.

Read part I, A Marriage Counselor Takes on Politics
Part II, The Perverse Power of the Non-Engaged
Part III, Building Walls

Background image on photo thanks to Huffington Post