Friday, August 11, 2017

Tolerably Intolerant

With the induction of "intolerant" into the American arsenal of low-grade pejoratives, the term is bandied about with a fair amount of regularity, having settled into an ironic definition of "a person or group of people, who due to their unjustified closed-mindedness, can safely/should be ignored." And when another random argument/shouting match about who qualifies as genuinely intolerant pops up, I'm reminded of this David Horsey cartoon from his days in Seattle.

Political/social arguments about tolerance tend to seem like challenges to a game of Russian Roulette, with each side claiming that the other is intolerant for not cheerfully accepting ideas that can be generally considered as directly aimed at undermining their worldviews, legitimacy and leadership. It's worth noting that this isn't always intentional bad faith. Political rhetoric can be remarkably layered and nuanced, and to those who aren't interested in peeling all of the layers of the onion, the fact that a topic is apparently off-limits may seem arbitrary, rather than serving a purpose. Bad faith abounds in politics and society, however, and so is the basis of many a sneering critique of the opposition's tolerance.

Generally speaking, in American politics, the Left holds to tolerance, which may perhaps be described as a mix of social, political and religious laissez-faire ("If it harms none, do as you will."), as an affirmative virtue. It comes across less valued on the American Right, except as a defense against the pejorative description of the right as intolerant. And what appears to drive many arguments about tolerance is a basic disconnect between what the sides themselves understand as harmful, and what the other side is willing to understand is harmful.

To use Mr. Horsey's cartoon as our example again, a stereotype of the American Right is that they find abortion, alternative sexuality, non-Christianity and Socialism to all be active harms of one sort or another. And while they may concede that these things exist and are unlikely to go away, the stereotypical Right-leaving echo chamber holds that support for these marks a person as perverse to one degree or another, and that if allowed free reign, their agenda will eventually erode the foundations of civil society. Likewise, a stereotype of the American Left is that they find homophobia, militarism and religious fundamentalism/zealotry to all be active harms in their own right. And therefore, the stereotypical Left-leaning echo chambers holds that these items are the marks of a perverse and harmful agenda.

Of course, since, in the end, each seeks to supplant the other, each stereotype sees its own viewpoints through a lens that carries very stringent and narrow understandings of "harm," and doesn't allow for simply undermining the other side to count. If it's not making the streets run red with blood, then it does no real harm to anyone. By the same token, as each stereotype sees itself as a affirmative good for society, work and ideas designed to undermine it, do come off as harmful. The stereotype of the American Right sees religious pluralism as a path to a world lacking in any moral constraints; while the Stereotype of the American Right sees the hegemony of one faith as a prelude to the end of free thought.

It's unlikely that either side will refrain from casting tolerance as the other showing a lack of commitment to what they consider "Truth," anytime soon. Nor will they concede the risk that they demand the other take. Because these things are all part of the script now. And more than anything else, the Stereotypes always stick to the script.

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