You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Rush Limbaugh recently reminded the world of what an asshole he is after Jason Collins came out. Limbaugh predictably made homophobic remarks then complained that people weren’t being tolerant of his intolerance.

A school in Missouri recently told students that they weren’t allowed to wear certain t-shirt made to honor the one year anniversary of a fellow student’s death. Did I mention that the shirts have the Confederate flag on them with the ridiculous proposition that it stands for “heritage, not hate.” Dude, you really could have designed the shirt without the flag and your attention whoring appologism. But no, you wanted to stir shit while honoring your friend. Asks a parent “Why do I have to be tolerant of everyone else’s view and no one has to be tolerant of mine?”

I’ve heard this argument before. I thought we were supposed to be tolerant! Why can’t you tolerate my bigotry? Which makes me ask, ok, then why can’t you tolerate me calling you a fucking bigot? Why can’t you tolerate a dress code?

But here’s the mature answer: because tolerance is defined as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward differences.” It breaks down when we lose the fair, objective, and permissive part. It does not require acceptance of bigotry, an unfair and inpermissive attitude.

And ultimately, here’s where I think the idea of tolerance as a virtue itself breaks down: my niece was baptized last weekend. My family is half Catholic and half Jewish. Certain Jewish members of my family declined to go to the baptism, which hurt the feelings of other members of my family. And these certain Jewish family members were told that tolerance works both ways.

Yes, in an ideal world, tolerance works all ways, tolerance being defined as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude.” But I just said above that tolerance only works to accept fair, objective, and permissive attitudes. You are not required to accept bigotry to be tolerant.

I don’t want to call the Catholic Church bigots (shocking, since I know I had some choice words for the new pope earlier), but I won’t argue against it if someone else does. Anyone who would take this stance has plenty of ammo. The Catholic Church wants to deny people their fundamental rights to get married and have bodily integrity. The Catholic Church has covered up rape. The Catholic Church has allowed women to die. And this was all this century. Last century, the Church did nothing while mass murder was committed and ran slave labor institutions. Before that, it committed mass murders. With that in mind, I can’t fault anyone, especially a person who has a family history of being victimized by the Church, from not wanting to go to a baptism. If tolerance works all ways, you also have to accept that some people don’t want anything to do with that.

So here’s why I don’t think a policy of tolerance works: if we don’t have to accept opinions that demonstrate bigotry, does this mean we don’t have to be tolerant of Catholics or other religions that preach hate and oppression? And if we then form a group and say we don’t want to have anything to do with Catholics, are people allowed to shun us because we are intolerant?

I kind of think this is why we have the First Amendment. The framers knew that the religious could be assholes, so they said, ok, I’ll let you be assholes, but just don’t shove it in my face.

I’ll continue to be intolerant of those I see preaching bigotry and know that I’m being fair and objective and thus tolerant. The First Amendment will protect my intolerance from doing any real harm.


About emmawolf

I'm a freelance writer living in Baltimore with my husband, son, and two cats. I'm working on editing my first novel. I love reading, traveling, and the cello.
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2 Responses to You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  1. Good points.

    Your post reminded me that I’ve often thought that tolerance wasn’t really much of a goal for most intelligent, forward-thinking people. Respect, yes, that’s noble, particularly when respecting others with whom one disagrees. This, of course, implies that respect for others should be paramount for all parties.

    Tolerance is something even wild animals can manage, much less the myopic.

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