Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Tolerance Is and Isn't

The wisdom of Robin Hanson:

“Tolerance” is a feel-good buzzword in our society, but I fear people have forgotten what it means. Many folks are proud of their “tolerance” for gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus. But what they really mean is that they consider such things to be completely appropriate parts of their society, and are not bothered by them in the slightest. That, however, isn’t “tolerance.”

“Tolerance” is where you tolerate things that actually bother you. Things that make you go “ick”, or that conflict with strong intuitions on proper behavior. Once upon a time, the idea of gay sex made most folks quite uncomfortable, and yet many of those folks still advocated tolerance for gay sex. Their argument was not that gay sex isn’t icky, but that a broad society should be reluctant to ban apparently victimless activities merely because many find them icky.

I've been guilty of misusing, and misunderstanding, the concept "tolerance." Hanson's point is so obviously true that it's forcing me to rethink tolerance.

Doesn't "tolerance" stand directly opposed to "integrity?" Isn't there a difference between "political" tolerance and "personal" tolerance? For example, the recent Supreme Court case (which Hansen cites) that struck down a federal statute "criminalizing the commercial production, sale, or possession of depictions of cruelty to animals." Animal cruelty is a heinous act, no doubt, but the very purpose of the First Amendment is to protect speech that may seem unpalatable to many (or most). Yet should those depictions be exempt from moral condemnation, i.e. "personal" intolerance? I don't think so. Just as I think Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow have a right to bleat their inanities, I need not remain quiet and tolerate their views. I can use any means available, like this blog, to be intolerant toward them -- except the physical force of the state.

Tolerance is only a virtue in the political sphere, to protect actions I may despise that don't violate the rights of others. Those crazies who think gays will go to hell have a right to say so. Politically, I must tolerate them. But personally, I have the right to be as intolerant as they are. Only persuasion, personal intolerance of those opposed to "gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus," leads to acceptance. As Alex Tabbarok notes:

[G]ay rights have not advanced because of more tolerance per se, i.e. they have not advanced because more people are willing to accept behavior that bothers them. Advance has occurred because fewer people are bothered by the behavior.