Friday, February 28, 2014

Talking Back: The Problem with Tolerance

Have we become too tolerant of intolerance?

The kinds of intolerances I’m thinking of are sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, general ignorance – to name just a few. Do those of us who consider ourselves allies and advocates on the larger scale, on a global scale, criticizing policy and ideology, let people, in our everyday life, get away with too much? I have, and I don’t want to anymore.

As a person who wants others to be tolerant of difference and diversity, it makes sense that I would be tolerant of them. But lately I’ve been thinking of the limits of tolerance. Is there a point where we should just not tolerate the opinions and stances of others? Is there a point, in this culture of tolerance and rational, independent, opinionated individuals, where we can fairly say, “no, you’re just wrong.”

Open-minded, tolerant people – with whom I consider myself to belong – face circumstances where we choose not to engage on a daily basis. Where we say “nah, there’s no point trying to reason with them" and "they won't get it." Where we bite our tongues and stay silent and expect nothing better from the people or organizations that we don’t agree with, and just learn to expect less. We lower our expectations where we should be raising them.

While I’ve always been an assertive, outspoken person, ready to engage in a debate and, calmly and fairly, state my point while trying to respect the opinion of my interlocutor, I’ve often avoided conflict and confrontation and just given up with people I assumed to be too set in their ways, difficult, or disinterested to see the flaws in their attitude or beliefs.

A prime example is how we – my generation, in my experience anyway – sometimes shy away from confronting older generations about their homophobia. We accept that they can’t understand LGBTQ issues, and why gay and lesbian people should be able to marry, and leave it at that. We’re annoyed and angry, but we see it as a lost cause.

But in my experience as a 26-year-old woman, I don’t get “away with” things for being young. I don’t get let off the hook with things I should know. I have to adapt to and grow up in this world, and others – even those who were raised to believe that women were inferior to men, or that "the gays" were going to hell – need to adapt to mine. And it’s time to stop letting people off the hook. I don’t care how you were raised or what your parents taught you, or your God taught you. At some point, your intolerance and ignorance just doesn’t work. It just isn’t good enough.

I can work with, be friends with, get along with people who have different views and values than I do, even radically different ones, but at some point a difference of opinion is too fundamental and essential to one’s character and overarching world perspective that I can’t work with it. You have to find your limits and take a hard line. 

I can’t respect someone who doesn’t respect the rights of gays and lesbians and trans people, because the reasoning that leads them to that stance makes me suspicious of all their reasoning. You don’t have to identify as a feminist, but I can’t respect someone who doesn’t believe in and value gender equality. I can’t enjoy a conversation with someone who makes generalizations about other ethnicities or countries without even attempting to educate themselves. At some point, the shortcomings of someone’s worldview are just too great for me to overcome.

Those are my hard lines. You may otherwise be a “nice” person, a decent person, a smart person, but I can’t tolerate ignorance and intolerance. Every time we avoid confrontation, we miss an opportunity to hold the other person accountable for their actions and words.

Here’s to talking back.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, the limits of tolerance must be defined. I support the rights of lesbian, gay and transgender people but I draw the line with those who threaten or use violence. I'd be interested in your comment on this position paper: