Monday, April 30, 2012

Tolerating Intolerance

There's an argument that I've heard many times that popped up again today that I'm getting tired of.

Let me rephrase that: I've been tired of it for a good long time, but today I actually heard it being made on the radio instead of in a smaller debate. Had I not been driving in traffic and had a nearly dead battery on my phone, I would have been tempted to call in. But alas, I was and it was, so instead you get a blog post.

The argument is that atheists are hypocrites because they ask for tolerance while being intolerant. (You can probably guess the topic it came up on.)

It doesn't happen to matter which group is being talked about. I've heard it used every which way from Sunday. Muslims, Christians, atheists, democrats, republicans, blah, blah, blah.

It doesn't matter which group you're talking about, it's a damned stupid argument regardless.

The reason is that it's missing the point. No one ever calls for unilateral and unconditional tolerance. Ask even the most tolerant fluff brained spiritualist who pretends like everything is all cool and we need to have respect for everyone and anything. Then ask them if molesting children is something we should tolerate. You'll be hard pressed to find one that does.

Obviously, the idea that anyone is calling for universal tolerance is a strawman heaped upon the victims of this argument.

Rather, what's behind everything, that is so rarely articulated, is that we should have rules for tolerance: We should tolerate things that encourage the well being of individuals and the community, that expand freedoms and happiness without infringing on the rights of others. We should be intolerant of things that cause harm that erode the freedoms of others, or are built on logical fallacies or just plain wrong.

When understood in this fashion, it's easy to see why someone may call for tolerance of one thing, but expect intolerance of something else. And that's not hypocritical.

But the charge is too often leveled which pisses me off because it's a smoke bomb: It obscures the actual issues and diverts us away from intelligent discussion.

I really don't think it's always done intentionally. Rather, I expect that most people just think they're being clever or taking some sort moral high ground, but they're not. They're discouraging discourse. And that's something we should call them on.

Because limiting discourse, especially when used against minorities to shut them down, is something we shouldn't tolerate.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Jon, I just discovered your blog and this particular post is wonderful. It is so refreshing to read from a person who really thinks things through. I find many of my own thoughts and feelings here, but articulated and expressed far better than I have been able. I will be sharing your blog with some friends of mine. Best wishes on your mission to share science.