Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What's wrong with intolerance?

It happens about this time every two years. I find myself becoming less open to the ideas of the other side and less understanding of the politically disinterested. Most of the time, I understand that people are who they are and that everyone has a right to their opinion (or non-opinion), even if it differs from mine. I live right smack in the middle of a red state, so despite calling myself a progressive, day-to-day I'm more likely to interact with someone who voted for Bush than the lefty liberals I consort with online. And you know, my more conservative neighbors and friends, they are good people. I reject the demonization of people with opposing political viewpoints. Most times, I agree with Barack Obama, who said in his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention:
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America.

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too:

We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States.

We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States.

There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.

We Are One People

Most times, that's what I think, but every time an election season comes around...every time political issues begin to feel a bit more pressing...every time people start talking more openly about what they really believe...I see the divide between liberals and conservatives more clearly. And, if I am honest, I become a lot less understanding of the other side and more angry that everyone won't just see it my way. Today, six months into an election year, I find myself more certain of the rightness of my beliefs and more bothered by the wrongness of my opponents. In a word, I am intolerant.
My political views are reflective of my values--the things I believe are moral and right. Does that then make people who don't believe as I do immoral? Do I owe those people my tolerance? I know what I that question sounds like it came from the mouth of a rightwing talking head, but there is a liberal side to this argument. For instance, I believe it is immoral that committed gay couples are not allowed the same rights as my husband and I. I think the disparity in quality education for our nation's children is immoral. And I think the fact that there are people in this rich country who die from lack of healthcare or inadequate health care is immoral. I have a hard time listening to the person who believes that a lesbian woman in a hospital should be denied access to her dying partner of 30 years simply because they are not legally married; or the person who thinks poor urban and rural children don't deserve the same quality education that their counterparts in the 'burbs get; or the person who goes on about socialism when the topic of universal healthcare comes up, but never considers the millions of people suffering without medical assistance. I believe in human equality as part of my deeply-held core beliefs. How do I tolerate a "good person" who does not share a value that I think is key to being, well, a good person?
I am also of the belief that our country is in trouble. It is suffering from an incurious, ill informed, history-challenged, disengaged electorate and a broken Fourth Estate. For the past four years, while our rights have been frittered away by a corrupt White House, while corporate fat cats lined their pockets and the middle class grew ever more fragile, and while thousands died in an unjust war, U.S. citizenry were on 24-hour Britney Spears vagina watch--more concerned with blonde bombshells in peril than democracy in peril. I am certain we will be undone by our disinterest in things that matter. So, when I hear that voters still believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim or that Iraq had something to do with September 11, when I hear someone boasting about not not following politics, watching the news or reading books, I get angry and judgmental and frustrated.
Am I justified in feeling the way I do? Maybe. But deep down I know that intolerance doesn't help anything, even when it is based on the "right" things. If the United States government under an Obama presidency can sit down and talk to "enemies" (which I fully support), surely I can find common ground with a Hannity-spouting neighbor driving a flag-festooned SUV. There is no progress without communication. And rigid belief in one's own rightness and the reduction of all opponents to charicatures are certainly grave character flaws in their own right.
Voltaire said "What is tolerance? -- it is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly -- that is the first law of nature." 
So, I guard against my intolerance. I try to pardon other people's follies and hope thay will pardon mine. My head says that this is the right thing to do. My heart, though, sometimes my radical heart wonders if seeing everyone's beliefs as having equal merit is perilous and detrimental to necessary change. After all, tolerance of Southern racists kept the U.S. government from protecting the rights of black Americans. Tolerance for rigid and sexist gender rules denied women the right to vote until 1920.
Where should tolerance end and intolerance begin?


Anonymous said...

Thanks again Tami for that very thoughtful post on your struggles with intolerance and tolerance.

I think a lot of people really try hard to be good people. I know a lot of my neighbors, and almost all of them are good. I come across people who say they are tolerant, but this is a self belief, it's not a factual belief.

Tolerance has nothing to do with acceptance, and I really don't like the term. Tolerance is how the guys in my office act. You'll never hear them say a sexist or homophobic comment, and yet they are these things, they embody the traits of deep racists, homophobes and sexists.

Ever wonder why white people say, "Oh I'm not racist?" Well white people are racist. They don't intend to do anything to get at institutional racism, and won't even try to see how it works. They are uninterested in the hard work.

Ever wonder why men will deny they are sexist, when they just acted sexist right in front of your very eyes? Same thing.

I have very low expectations of government, and I wonder why we engage it as much as we do.

We all interpret freedom very differently, but I think a lot of people miss the benefits of new groups getting access.

When others "succeed" oddly enough, I benefit. Even if the issue has nothing to do with me, the fact that a group gets justice does indeed profoundly benefit me.

I think you have to see this to believe it, and yet I have experienced this.

If we are angry and intolerant, then let's have the courage to talk it out with people. Keeping to our own groups all the time somehow stifles creativity.

I don't agree with most of what passes for political discourse on any of the radical feminist blogs, the liberal blogs or the leftist world. But I find conservatives kind of boring in their outrage over people that aren't hurting them.

Thanks for sticking up for gays and lesbians Tami, because now we get to hear just how bigoted people really are in California. And yet, doors continue to open.
Will "marriage" help us? I actually am not interested in gay marriage, because I see straight marriage as a trap, for example. And yet straight people never quite get me, so if they use an "easy" word like marriage, suddenly they think they get me.

Agreement is not really something I value anyway, because we think we disagree with conservatives or sexists or racists, but really we are often dealing with people who simply don't step outside their tribal consciousness.

If we have more equality, it is really true that white men will lose, and they know it. But is "losing" bad? White men die on average about 10 years sooner than women, so are they really in that strong a position to begin with?

They think so. Hanity thinks so, so does macho O'Reilly, but are they newsmen or just in the inflamatory entertainment business?

And is it ok to have entertainment at so many people's expense? Think men gobbling up pornography, or rap artists calling women vile names.

Do we really care about justice, or are we just being tribal?

I get angry all the time! I get sick of my own people just sleazing along and not caring. But then I think of my little group, and how much freedom we have, and how clever we are, and how our lives are an adventurous wild west. When I think of the advantages of being a very out very visible radical lesbian in the middle of "conservative" corporate America, I am amused. That is freedom. It is my white male colleagues who really live in cages of their own making.

People are intolerant a lot of times because they are lazy. We have access to every book imaginable, and yet how many people out there are reading books?

How many people will vote?

Jennifer said...

I struggle with this all the time. One of the political disadvantages with affiliating as "liberal" is that by definition, liberals are expected to be open minded and tolerant of a variety of views (type in "liberal definition" and you will see that, indeed, liberal folks are open and tolerant of a broad range of ideas). We're supposed to be tolerant--whereas Conservatives, by definition, stay within narrow confines--cautious, restrained, traditional.

As liberal as I am, I struggle with being intolerant to those whom I believe are intolerant. But...I have to try to practice what I preach--to fulfill the ideology that I espouse.

However...I don't think that means we let go of our convictions. And I think it's important to call people on their stuff--being tolerant doesn't mean you can't be opinionated. It means you are able to hear and weigh various perspectives and form your own opinions out of that diversity.

Thanks for this post Tami--as always, wonderful food for thought.

CVT said...

Everybody's intolerant, to some degree. Everybody's a little bit ignorant. It's human nature. It's also what we experience and are exposed to that enables us to get over that. So we can't exactly blame people born in the wrong place and time for ignorance.

However - if they remain closed to further experience and/or education, then that's a choice, and that's something we can try to battle a bit.

What keeps me going is knowing that, at the end of every year, I can look back at the things I "knew" or the things I thought were "wrong" and feel like an idiot about at least a few of them that I have since learned about and changed my mind on. That's the joy (and embarrassment) of progress. So - if somebody is willing to put themselves in a position to later change their mind on something - then it's all good. If they make a choice not to - then there's no need to be patient. Those willing to be exposed to new ways of thinking may still end up pissing you off some, but at least there's the chance for that to change (when either you change your mind, or they change theirs).

On another note, "liberal" is absolutely no protection against intolerance and ignorance. I live in "liberal" Portland, Oregon - the whitest city in the U.S. A place where white liberals love to "celebrate diversity" with all the other white liberals they know. I read ads for roommates on "liberal" Craigslist that call for somebody who "must: not eat meat, smoke (tobacco), drink excessively, be politically right or be overly religious; must be open-minded and 420 friendly . . ." I want to cry every time.

So, living in this town, I have found a certain appreciation and understanding for some open-minded "conservative" folks - and I get how annoying "liberals" can encourage "conservative" reactions.

heartsandflowers said...

Tolerance vs. Intolerance. Terrorist vs. Freedom Fighter. Truth vs. Lie. Yin. Yang. Isn't this all the flip side of the same coin of our human existence? We will not have "utopia" but we can each try to contribute to this planet and her people to make it a little slice of "heaven". Being open, humble enough to self-examine and taking constructive criticism is good. There are some people who are determined to wreck havoc and self-implode. For those of us who have been 'called', who have compassion, insight and wisdom, we must take action to reinforce that. It is a burden, but it is OUR burden. We make the world a better place than what it would be without us!!

MacDaddy said...

Thanks for helping me to think through the notion of tolerance. I'm still ambivalent about it, including the bias in me. I've come a long way, but I still got a ways to go. What I'm trying to say is that the less tolerant I become of my own ethnic, sexist or homophobic biases, the less tolerant I'm becoming of those biases in others.

Evan Carden said...

From what you say, you're in a good position to avoid intolerance. You're basically forced to interact with good people who disagree with you.

I worry a bit about how tolerant I'll be after finishing up at the University of Washington (about as liberal as you can get, north of Berkley).

It's all too easy to get sucked into this echo chamber where my own beliefs are parroted back at me, with the only counter-arguments being strawmen, produced to be destroyed. After a round of that, going out into the world and hearing real, rational arguments...

That can make me intolerant, but worse, it maes me incompetent. If the only arguments I know how to beat are strawmen, then when I face real arguments, I come off sounding stupid.

To anonymous:

" Well white people are racist. They don't intend to do anything to get at institutional racism, and won't even try to see how it works."

Speaking as a white guy, I try to see how it works and don't see myself as racist. However, I am certainly willing to concede that I probably benefit from both racism
and sexism. I write 'probably' because unfortunately, institutionalized racism/sexism rarely admits to its own existence. For obvious reasons.

"They are uninterested in the hard work."

I'm gonna leave that one alone.

"I have very low expectations of government, and I wonder why we engage it as much as we do."

Because we hope for more than we have and engaging with the government is one of the best ways to do that.

Also, I have to object to the description of O'Reilly as 'macho,' which of course means overtly masculine. The idea that O'Reilly is 'macho' is deeply offensive to me, as a man.

That was sarcasm, in case it wasn't clear.

spartakos said...

I want to congratulate you on facing your intolerance honestly, which I think all people should do. And I want to tell you that in my opinion, you should hold onto it. Keep it on a leash, by all means, don't let it take control and drag you around, don't let it dictate to you...but keep it handy. Your last paragraph about how being 'tolerant' of attitudes and behaviors that simply should not be tolerated served to perpetuate them is a powerful one. I think few people, if any, want to be tolerant of such things as murder or child molestation. The sole issue is what behaviors/stances are beyond the limits of tolerance...and I think everybody needs to find that out for themselves.

As to how I try to practice tolerance as best I can...I am willing to listen. If someone has a differing stance, viewpoint, or opinion, I will always hear him/her and let them explain it to me. I reserve the right to disagree, and I reserve the right to work against them if I think their attitude is harmful to me or society...but I won't tell them they don't have the right to hold it or speak it.

The worst form of intolerance is silencing; when you won't listen to someone, you have no way of judging whether you should agree or disagree or whatever. You're trading judgement for the status quo...and it's usually happening because you're afraid of thinking about what they're saying.

Somebodies Friend said...

Yes, there definitely are the spin masters, the ones who embrace anything goes. Well, I've got news for those folks, America will be united again. The time is now to stand up for what we all believe in and that is the end of people taking sides or being held in bondage.

People are held in bondage because of their beliefs today. Can you believe that in July of 2008, there are those who can't think or do what they really feel is right because someone has control over them.

This is unacceptable to me, in every sense of the word, unacceptable. I have made it my goal to be there for anyone who asked for my help, and I mean anyone. I doesn't matter what they have done in the past, all that matters is their attitude towards the future, their future and the future all those around them.

Intolerance of others, no matter what their beliefs is intolerable in and of itself. Most of the time people are intolerant because it is all they know. It is how they were raised, how their parents were raised and how their parents parents were raised.

We can find a way to break the cycle of intolerance for all people, show them the way, THE WAY OUT. So at least if people have an idea what is really going on, they can make an informed decision.

I made this decision very recently and I am committed to seeing it throught. Praise God above that he will see that I achieve my goal, that goal is that every person has a real and informed choice whether they want to be free, free of the chains that bind almost everyone on this great planet of ours, free to cross over to a better place, happy joyous and FREE!!!!!

It won't be long, I promise.

Great stuff Tami, keep up the good work, I'm sure this won't be the last time that I must comment on some of your outstanding, stimulating writings.

Thank you


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