The Stigma of “Intolerance”

Think for a second, a minute, or more, on what your reaction would be if someone, be it a total stranger or a close friend, walked up to you, and called you intolerant. Nothing less, nothing more; merely intolerant.

Would you be offended?

I’m not so sure I would be. Yet, wearing the tag of being an intolerant human being is tantamount to having the words “sex offender” stamped on the back of your t-shirt everywhere you go (hyperbole, but close enough). How did the word “intolerance” and its derivatives gain such a powerful meaning and such a capacity to offend?

I understand that people, in this age of political correctness, are afraid of being labeled “closed-minded” and not open to outside opinions, declaring them wrong without giving them a hearing. Perhaps it derives from a fear of narcissism or even individualism, where, again, the individual tends to shut out other opinions and declare his to be right (after all, what is an opinion if you yourself can’t defend it?). The main thing that the word “intolerance” brings up, in my opinion, is racism. To be racist is to be intolerant of those of a certain skin color for no justifiably rational reason, and that’s where I think the word “intolerant” received such a powerfully and decisively evil connotation.

But, for all the politically correct folks who preach total and utter tolerance of all views, I ask this simple question: isn’t what you’re telling everyone to do simply intolerant of intolerance, and, thus, hypocritical?

Who is going to pretend that they are simply tolerant of anything — because, if they have, they have truly achieved nirvana. We are all intolerant of some things just like we have inadequacies; the chief difference being that, sometimes, our intolerance can be a very good thing. This is a very fine line to walk, because that sounds like I’m advocating racism and bigotry of the highest order — but the operative word there is sometimes.

Want to figure out what you’re intolerant to? It’s easy: just take your core, fundamental beliefs, and say the opposite of that belief. Example: I’m pretty damn close to being a rationalist, so I’m simply intolerant of those who take things that cannot be proved as the truth, hence my atheism (and before anyone says you can’t disprove that God X isn’t real, it’s a logical fallacy). I’m intolerant of those who are willing to take away my freedom to speak and act, unless I have threatened their rights as well: that is called justice. Those are just two examples; there are many more, I’m sure.

The final point is: intolerance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, an intolerance of injustice, equality, authoritarianism and religious persecution is what this country is founded on. And I’m thankful for it.


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  1. There is a lot to think about here. My thought is that there is a difference between intolerance and a political position taken with “no justifiably rational reason,” such as racism. I believe that I have justifiable and rational reasons to be intolerant of racism, and to speak out against it. But I do not wish to deny anyone their right to express themselves – what I am interested in is fighting the pernicious effects of racism, such as job and housing discrimination, unequal access to education and racially motivated violence.

    I consider myself tolerant of differences in opinion, even though I occasionally express myself in sharper tones in the blogosphere. I don’t think we heal as a nation if we fight each other over differences of opinion. I see that point in your post and I think it is an important one.

    So much has changed in our society over the past decades. So many of us have had the privilege of growing up in a society that no longer enforces segregation – we have been born into a new kind of world where racial divisions no longer make any sense.

    It is these legal and societal changes that have created the foundation for equality. It is my hope that as time moves on and we get farther away from legally enforced racial divisions that the momentum towards equality that already exists will become so strong that racism will be considered as unnecessary and irrational as it is in a society without legally enforced distinctions.

    Racism brought a sense of order to the America of the past. Equality is now the way we construct our society, and it seems understandable that vestiges of racism still exist, particularly in areas of the country with a vivid history of legally enforced racial divisions.

  2. Twit:

    Thanks for your comment! It’s much appreciated!

    I’m with you on the pernicious effects of racism and bigotry/intolerance of any kind: what I wish to do, like you, is to remove the effects of these irrational forms of total intolerance. And yet, there are simply some things we cannot be tolerant of: violence for any other reason than justifiable self-dense, for example.

    I tolerate differences of opinion, depending on the issue. I’m more lenient with political views that aren’t totally radical (like total Marxists or neocons; I’m sure I’d love to debate a real conservative like Ron Paul, however). However, on discussions concerning religion, I tend to pull no punches and make myself look like a callous ass as a result, but that’s just how I deal with that subject. I do, however, believe in absolute freedom of opinion, again, unless it infringes upon the freedom of others to do the same. The best way, I’ve found, to learn about yourself is to defend your position from an opposing viewpoint in a discussion or debate with someone else. If Congress and even the presidential campaigns actually asked tough questions of the other side and didn’t blame things on the opposing party, I think this country would be in much better shape (Nancy Pelosi, I’m looking at you!).

    I, being a young ‘un, know what it’s like to grow up in a society where there isn’t significant racial prejudice (being in an ethnically diverse family like mine also helps). Racism, quite honestly, confuses me. I can’t comprehend why anyone would think that black people are inferior to white men, or any other “race” is inherently better than another. It’s a total fallacy because humans are humans: if black people and spanish people and chinese people were of different “races” and there was a genetic difference, they wouldn’t all be humans or Homo Sapiens; they’d be different species. And they can’t be different species because, obviously, a bi”racial” couple can still have fertile offspring, which is the criteria for a species to be a… species.

    I, too, hope that America keeps moving toward equality (not in Marxist sense, of course).

  3. Dunno why you put Marxism and neocon next to each other, Brett – you’ll have to explain that one. But that could be my intolerance of neocons – I have such an aversion to neocon philosophy that it verges on hatred, and I just cannot hate. I, obviously, use the word but I can’t say that I really know the meaning – or ever want to.

    I’m all for someone having their say – I won’t agree with them if I don’t. I will call it as I see it – but again, I won’t stop anyone else doing the same.

    I detest racism – I think I have made that obvious, too. I detest more inferred racism – because that is a psychological ploy and that is where you get into very murky waters.

  4. I put both because they are totally radical and will fail if their final ends are reached. I’m tolerant of both extremes equally, the difference being that neoconservatism is particularly prevalent in modern day America. That said, in the Cold War era, I don’t think I would be a huge proponent of the Domino Theory mainly because it’s other countries’ choice to become a Marxist state or not (unless they got conquered by the USSR or something).

    Agreed for the rest of your comment, too.

  5. I think that “Marxism” is muddled concept these days…

    My statement about how my concern is with the impacts of racism, and not the inner workings of an individual’s thoughts, could be construed as a “Marxist” statement – my interpretation of Marxism is as a critique of the idea that we can achieve social change by changing people’s minds – Marx wrote in a work entitled “The German Ideology” to “Beware the young Hegelians,” which was a swipe at the idea that “enlightened minds” were the key to social change. My understanding is that Marx looked at the structural components of a society – such as the economy – as the key places to create real change and equality.

    The US Civil War could be seen as primarily grounded in economic systems – and once Lincoln changed the slave economy, the change was so drastic that war was a consequence. The racism in slavery had an economic component – it provided order to an economic system that demanded slave labor.

    Now, of course, the ideas for economic changes associated with Marx were a disaster. But I think there is something to the idea that we need to look at the structures of our society, and leave people free to their own thoughts. Marx may have believed that working to change thoughts was a useless way to promote social equality, but in America, to try to mandate changes in thought is a gross violation of everything this country stands for.

    It is true that there are definitely people who identify as Marxist and hold the belief that violent revolution is the only way to change social systems that create oppressive conditions. I reject that notion because I do not see how we ever achieve peace through violence. I tend to think of revolution in Jeffersonian terms, as an extreme last resort, but I also think it is a non-starter in American society and would not be successful. The main reason I won’t identify as a Marxist is because of the association with violence, but I think some of the ideas at the core of the writings of Karl Marx can be useful to understanding our history and thinking about our future.

    I went to law school, in part because I believe that our legal system has a tremendous amount of power to change structural components of our society – for example, it is not enough to outlaw job and housing discrimination, these laws also need to be enforced. Brown v. Board of Education is one of the most stunning examples of the law’s ability to radically transform our society – it removed any logic of using race as a way to decide what societal benefits an individual is entitled to.

    Generations later, we see the result. We are now confused by racism, it no longer makes any sense at all. The legal structures that made racism part of American culture are gone, and we have had the privilege to grow up in a society that is legally freed from that kind of inequality. As a nation, we are still healing for the trauma of centuries of inequality. We have a ways to go, but the momentum is on our side.

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post.

  6. No, thank you, just for thinking. There’s nothing anyone can do that’s greater than thinking.

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