Monday, July 23, 2007

Tolerance and intolerance

Recently I saw an old idea that bugs me, and it inspired me to write about it at long last (or again, if I've complained about it before... I never can remember). It's the idea of not tolerating intolerance.

What, exactly, is tolerance? Well, a decent summary is Beatrice Hall's quote[1] about "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it!" So, if I'm tolerant, does that mean I'll defend, to the death, someone like, say, Fred Phelps? Well, in order to do that, we need to understand the notion of rights.

What rights do we have when we're doing something disagreeable (in multiple senses of the word)?

We say that folks should have the right to free speech and freedom of the press, and such, right? Well, don't folks living in dictatorships have the "right" to speak freely and publish things that anger the dictator? I mean, they certainly can speak or write against the dictator, a dictator doesn't have the power to have a guard conk someone one the head every time they start to speak out against, or write unfavorably about, the dictator.

Ah, but the dictator does have the power to punish those people... to run them out of business, to put them in jail, to potentially even have them killed. That is what removes the rights. One doesn't have a right to speak freely if one must face punishment for doing so.

Except it's pretty ridiculous to think that people will never face consequences for their actions, right? Speaking and writing are certainly actions; why should they be exempt from having consequences? If Don Imus is the kind of ass who calls a woman's basketball team a bunch of nappy headed hos, shouldn't that piss people off? Shouldn't that get enough folks angry that the network decides they can find someone more deserving of Imus' time slot?

And this is the crux of the issue. The question is, if you believe in freedom, what consequences are acceptable in response to someone's opinions (and their speaking and writing about them)? What is the difference between intolerance and allowing people to reap what they sow? My figuring is that the proper attitude can be summed up by "There, I've protected you from injustice, now push off!" (I substituted "push" for another four letter word to avoid profanity.)

You don't have to like a person, or enjoy their company; you have to be willing to stand up against injustice, because we all have to be willing to stand up against injustice, or justice fails by default. Of course, what is "justice", what is fair and right, can be hard to define.

In the case of the government, well, it should be clear. Short of a very small number of issues, the government should not be able to punish speech or writing in any way, and we should all stand against the government when they try to punish free expression. But what about among private citizens?

It gets complicated because we know what happened prior to the civil rights movement. We know that people will claim the right of "free association" to deny people the right to earn a living or own property, and we know that people stood by idly while crimes were committed against people they disliked. It's not enough to say "I'm not directly hurting anyone"; justice means you have to believe in fair and righteous treatment for everyone, not just those people you like. Sometimes justice demands more than "not hurting anyone"; sometimes it means helping those you dislike.

I think the quote from Adlai Stevenson really sums it up: "A free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular." It might not be comfortable; people might scowl at you, or cross the street to avoid you. If you ask someone for a favor, well, you probably won't get it if you're unpopular. But overall, you're safe. You know if you can do a job, you have a reasonable chance of being hired to do it. You know that if you try to buy food or shelter, you're not going to prevented from doing so. You know that if anyone tries to harm you or your property, others will stand up to protect you, as quickly as they would for anyone else.

So, I don't think liberal folks should be "intolerant of intolerance". If life were fair, the intolerant would be perfectly safe... but also perfectly uncomfortable with the opinions of their neighbors.

[1] Beatrice Hall stated this as being what Voltaire's views were, but was not quoting Voltaire[2].
[2] Yes, I'm being a pedantic showoff. We long-haired weirdos are like that sometimes.

Interesting post, I've often thought that the act of trying to force people to not be intolerant was no more than intolerance itself.

There are no guarantees in life that everyone will like you nor should they have to. We at times concentrate so much on being pc that we end up being afraid to communicate.
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