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?


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