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Should We Tolerate Intolerance?

I want to talk about tolerance. Now, I am not sure that the topic of tolerance itself has been in the news a lot lately but, with the recent wave of brazen intolerance displayed towards so many, it is one topic that has been playing on my mind. I am not going to pretend that I am a philosopher or even anything close to an expert in ethics, so take this for what it is, a thought exercise and an open question.

Back in university I took an ethics course where we discussed the idea of tolerance and what that means in its ideological form. While us students espoused our views that, “we should be tolerant of everyone and accept people for who they are,” my professor raised the counterpoint that strict tolerance includes being tolerant of those who are intolerant. We fought back; how could we ever be tolerant of groups as terrible as Neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan? Our intolerance was based in the morality of right and wrong, so clearly we had the high ground. But, as all good ethics professors do, he asked, “who defines morality?” I left class that day completely frustrated. I could not rationalize being tolerant of such hateful and destructive groups. This conundrum played in my head over and over again until I found myself asking the one question that lead me to write this piece; how can tolerance be both moral and operational in society without violating the ethical principle of tolerance itself?

The first point to address is morality. If we look at the world, I believe we can surmise a sort of “global code of ethics.” Our issue with intolerant groups/people is largely based in the idea that they cause severe harm to others. In essence, that is why we call them “hate groups” or “bigoted.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations makes clear that every human being is entitled to life. Most strikingly, to our discussion is Article 5, which states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” So, if we agree that everyone is entitled to a certain set of human rights, we can be tolerant of groups that respect this agreement. In short, intolerant peoples break our moral code.

Now that we have the most basic foundation for how to be morally tolerant, how do we put this into practice. My stab at a solution is that we set boundaries on tolerance. I can listen to groups with whom I disagree but I cannot stand by and allow those groups to cause harm or violate human rights. I think the really tricky part to this is finding the best response. Ideally, the response would be actionable, causing sweeping legislative and meaningful change to our entire system. But, I think we know all too well that making any sort of systemic change is fraught with red-tape. Furthermore, that big picture thinking often neglects what people experience in more intimate and real encounters with prejudice.

It is easy for me to say that I choose the non-violent response. I am not someone who likes conflict, but I don’t expect everyone to be like me. The big question I think of is, if I respond to the groups with violence, am I any different from them? Here is where I see gray. You could argue that a violent response violates human rights. Beating someone for their ideals would seem to violate my morality of tolerance. But, not all violence is directed at people. Look at protests across the United States, the destruction of corporate property is vastly different from the destruction of personhood. But here again, you could argue that financial losses cause harm. Again, I see financial loss as vastly different from the loss of human life and dignity. This circular thinking could go on forever. Here is my take; you do you what you can. You see intolerance that you cannot tolerate, you respond. Whether it’s a letter, call to your representative, sit down heart to heart with the opposition or even a reciprocal march, you do something. You don’t do nothing.

Having written and thought about tolerance to the point of near madness, I want to end with a thought experiment. Like I said before, I am not an expert and I grew up with the privilege of experiencing relatively benign intolerance. So, everything I think may be wrong, my attempted solutions and thoughts may not be feasible or even reasonable to you. But I do ask one thing. I ask that you leave this article where I started, frustrated and asking yourself;  what do tolerance and intolerance mean to me? How do I define tolerance in a practical way? And lastly, how do I respond to intolerance?

Danielle Wolf
Freelance Writer and Graduate Student | + posts
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