Tolerance is the mushy liberal value conservatives love to mock. We should be proud to be intolerant of those who break God’s commandments, proclaimed James Dobson’s son on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast. Why are so-called tolerant liberals so intolerant of us, ask the social conservatives.
James Dobson is fond of quoting young college students as saying things like, “Well, if you believe in animal sacrifice, that’s okay for you but it’s not okay for me.” I don’t doubt that there are loopy college kids out there who have said such things, but that kind of truly mushy thinking is not at all what is classically meant by “tolerance.” I fear that social conservatives have succeeded in making “tolerance” a dirty word.
“Tolerance” does not mean “anything goes.” I strive to be “tolerant” but I have no problem criticizing other people’s belief systems and world views. And I don’t believe the value of “tolerance” need include tolerance of injustice. I don’t tolerate rape, murder, theft, unjust discrimination, or a whole host of other evils.
What “tolerance” as a virtue really means is that we don’t hate or exclude or restrict people just because they are different from us or unattractive to us in some way. To give an easy example: I am happy to welcome people from North Africa and the Middle East into my country and into my home, even though their religion and their customs and their appearance is often quite different from my own. I will not, however, tolerate practices like honor killings or female genital mutilation. I would certainly insist that such occurrences be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law in this country and I would like to see such customs eradicated throughout the globe. (By the way, I don’t mean to imply that honor killings and female genital mutilation are universal throughout North Africa or the Middle East but they are certainly prevalent in many quarters, in countries like Somalia, for instance.)
Similarly, I am happy to have friends who are very conservative Christians. I would, and I am sure almostany liberal would agree with me, vigorously defend freedom of religion for Christians in this country if I felt it was threatened. I am appalled by stories of the persecution of Christians in other countries. But I also believe that Christians have no right to insist that their religion be treated as a privileged religion in our public sphere. I am also quite willing to criticize aspects of Christian belief. (I should note, however, that tolerance strikes me, in fact, as very much a Christian virtue, although it not necessarily unique to Christianity.)
Tolerance is hard work. Often people with different customs or different lifestyles scare us or turn us off in some way. I can understand why people with a more sober outlook on life might feel threatened or turned off by the flamboyance one often sees in a gay pride parade. I can understand why social snobbery exists. I can understand why we might be frightened of people who talk differently, dress differently, and worship differently than we do. Unjustified intolerance is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Liberals are certainly not immune. I view tolerance as a “liberal” value but that does not mean that liberals are always great at it. I recall in college that liberal students used to steal stacks of the conservative student paper from outside the dorms right after they were delivered -- a most illiberal act of intolerance towards the conservative students’ right to express their views. Another classic example was the fictional yet true-to-life classic film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” in which the white liberal parents were none too pleased at their daughter’s engagement to an African-American.
All that having been said, the notion of “tolerance” has value and should not be mocked. It is an important aspirational goal. If someone else’s beliefs or manners or language or customs do not hurt you or others, welcome them with open arms and learn from them no matter how alien or discomfiting they may seem.