Friday, April 4, 2014

Tolerance of Intolerance?

Make My Day, Punk
I got a chat about today's Omnivore (the ouster of Brendan Eich) from a reader. The question was: "Can you say I'm tolerant--but I'm intolerant of intolerance?" Or is that a contradiction in terms? His (initial) position was that it probably was: If you're claiming to be tolerant doesn't that kind of imply being okay with other people's judgmental positions?

My (initial) position was that it wasn't: Saying you are 'tolerant' doesn't imply you're okay with freakin' anything. I held that there was a "reasonable person" standard for saying 'I am tolerant' where I can be not-okay with, like Nazis or something, without a "reasonable person" going "Oh, not-okay with Nazis? That means you're intolerant!"

But these weren't solid lines. So let's take a closer look.

The Moral Framework For Intolerance
The key question here is how we draw the lines: to be tolerant one does not have to tolerate Nazis--you don't have to "tolerate" mass murder or torture or whatever--clearly everyone (most people) think you can be 'tolerant' without having to be okay with that.

However, once you get beyond the worst-case, iconically bad examples, how and were do you draw the line? That's the key question here: do you have a consistent position by which you decide if something is beyond the pale of tolerance.

There are a few ways to draw the lines:
  1. Religious: You can read the Bible and see what God says about [ whatever ]
  2. Science!: You can use studies and statistics to try to assess "damage" from [ whatever ] vs. "whatever good it does" and see how the balance comes out.
  3. Ethics: You can use some other ethical framework (Libertarian philosophy, for example) to judge acts and see if they are okay with it.
All of these may have problems. Not all biblical scholars agree on everything and you can, with some searching, find one who will disagree with anything. Science is often narrow, disputed, sloppy, or hard to understand. Social Sciences are even worse.

Ethical frameworks can be pretty sturdy but may not cover everything--and a lot of Libertarians have issues around pro-choice / pro-life, for example so it won't answer every question you might have.

The Use Case: Liberal-Girl Calls Christians Intolerant
The case that came up is this: Some "liberal girl" encounters a Christian an says "I don't like Christians--they're intolerant. The whole proposition 8 thing was mean."

The Christian turns to her and says "Aren't you being intolerant of me?"

We're off to the races.

The initial conversation addressed three questions and then we got to a kind of framework for a definitive answer. The questions were:

  1. Is it legitimate to say "Some Christians are okay with gay marriage?"
  2. Is our hypothetical 'tolerant' person intolerant of the actions of Defense of Marriage supporters or their raw beliefs?
  3. Can our hypothetical 'tolerant' person be 'intolerant of bullies' and still be considered legitimately tolerant?

Wait: Some 'Christian Churches are Okay With Gay Marriage'
My first response was that the Christian could say "Some Christian churches are okay with gay marriage--" But we both agreed that, while she might be painting with an overly broad brush, the idea that Christians, as a general whole are mostly not comfortable with gay marriage was on target. In other words: if the defense against being called intolerant rests on "What qualifies are Christian" the we're having less a debate about acceptance or whatever and more about set-theory.

Is It Actions or Beliefs You Get To Disapprove Of?
Marriage is a sacrament and we wouldn't be human if we didn't worry about slippery slopes--but does theoretical-girl have a problem with Christians who think it's a sin (recognizing that, hey, we're all sinners?).

She might. She might not. We came down on the side that if the hypothetical Christian is, in fact, minding their own business about it and she's hounding them about their take on gay marriage she probably is, in fact, intolerant.

On the other hand, if she's okay with Christians who aren't on a political crusade against gay marriage, she still might qualify for 'tolerant.' Maybe. We'll see.

Do I have To Tolerate Nazis? Bullies?
The second thing I brought up was that it seems like a lot of the Prop-Eight stuff seems "like bullying." Now, let's be clear: I'm not saying it is / isn't--whether a guy can be rightfully fired for a donation is very different than whether gay people can get married ... and different still from whether a Christian is forced to collaborate in baking a cake for a marriage they disapprove of.

On the other hand, if something clearly fits my definition of "bullying" can I be tolerant and not tolerate that? I have a general sense that it's more okay to "punch up" (to criticize or make fun of those more powerful than you) than to "punch down" (criticize / make fun of those less powerful).

My definition of bullying comes from academic / scholastic definitions and is: 1. There is recurrent harm (physical or psychological) caused to the subject and 2. There is a social / physical power-imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim. In short, it's the strong repeatedly picking on the weak.

We concluded that the answer is "No." You can be 'tolerant' and not tolerate bullies--but you have to be very careful with your definition of bullying before we can get back to Christians and Prop-8 (or whatever).

What The Omnivore Thinks
So let's go to "the tape." In this case it's Google's definitions of Tolerance and Tolerate:
1.The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
"the tolerance of corruption"
2.An allowable amount of variation of a specified quantity, esp. in the dimensions of a machine or part.
"250 parts in his cars were made to tolerances of one thousandth of an inch"
1. Allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.
"a regime unwilling to tolerate dissent"
Using these definitions we see three very key points:
  • Tolerance (def 2) explicitly implies a gradient of acceptance. A tolerant person need not tolerate anything (yes, the def is referring to tooling--but I think it's clear that we can use this to bolster the I-Need-Not-Tolerate-Nazis part of the argument)
  • You don't have to like or approve of whatever it is you are tolerating.
  • The key to tolerating something is not interfering with it.
So what do we have?

Let's Do Defense Of Marriage Advocacy
I'm going to stay away from the real, actual Prop-8 bill because I don't want to get bogged down in specifics. If we assume that (a) 'Real Christians' are against gay marriage and (b) Will donate to the campaign and turn-out and vote against it then is this "interfering" with (gay) people in a way that disapproving of Christian's activities isn't?

In short, is a tolerant person allowed to disapprove of DoM Advocacy? Are they allowed to speak against it on Facebook and Twitter and still be tolerant? Shout from a street-corner? Donate to pro-gay marriage organizations?

Question One: Is Defining Marriage As A Man And A Woman Intolerant of Gays?
The first question is whether or not the DoM bill is intolerant of gays? Gays want to marry each other--the bill makes that impossible. 

On the NO side: Gay marriage was already illegal so all this did was set that in stone. It didn't make matters any worse, did it?

On the YES side: We know that the tide of legal-gay-marriage is coming and this is an attempt to increase the resistance level of societal change. It also can interfere with gays who are legally married in other states and come to California (or wherever).

Conclusion: YES. Not allowing gays to get married because one disapproves of them is interfering and intolerant. The fact that there is a well funded ad campaign / full-court-press blocking move to make gay marriage harder to achieve means that we from Ideology -> Action -> Outcome (no gay marriage).

Question 2: Is Same-Sex-Marriage Interfering With Hetrosexuals?
The next question is whether or not the SSM activists (or just "gays who want to get married") are interfering with straight marriages.

On the NO side: What Adam and Steve do with their marriage doesn't impact you in any material / provable fashion. You may not like --and you may be convinced that some kind of devaluation of your marriage is happening--but your marriage isn't real estate that you can get appraised for value.

On the YES side: There is no shortage of suggestions (and even some studies) that legalizing same-sex marriage will "damage societies." On the suggestion side:
Conclusion: The farm-animal issue is just silly (polygamy less so, of course--but we keep getting farm animals and that's telling). The idea that SSM will cause men to flock to other men leaving women bereft is equally ridiculous. 

Spiritual damage is definitionally unprovable so it's (literally) preaching to the choir. The idea that SSM 'forces society to approve' of homosexuality is moot in the US where it appears, today, 61% of young republicans are ok with gay marriage. 

Consider this if you are willing to float that argument: if the societal winds change (duck) does that mean that standing against gay marriage is now causing societal stress? If so, then if you look at the latest Pew and Gallup polling should you change your mind? Didn't think so.

Threats to the sovereignty of religious organizations are real--and should be taken seriously--but they are not implicit in SSM itself--they are a potential outcome of legal SSM. In other words, allowing gays to get married--but not forcing disapproving religious organizations to do it is not interfering with those institutions.

The threat that it could happen means it should be monitored (and might be a reason to strategically advocate against SSM)--but it does not trip the red-line of interference.

What about eventual societal destruction caused by gay marriage? If you have a study that factors out all other issues (gay marriage is not legal in Japan and they have a terribly low marriage and birth-rate) and can provide causation (i.e. you're not one of those people who thinks cancer causes smoking, are you?) then The Omnivore wants to see it. Googling didn't provide anything that seemed conclusive.

So Can You Be 'Tolerant' And Think Ill Of Christians Who Are Anti-Gay Marriage?
If you set the bar for "interference" at 'breathing my air' then anyone, anywhere on the planet who disagrees with you is intolerant and interfering. In order to have a real dog in the fight (standing to call someone intolerant) there has to be some kind of provable harm to you.

The idea of 'societal decay' is pretty hard to prove. If you think Obama and Bush have damaged America (cases to be made for both) then half the voters in America have likely "disliked" what you believe (or do) and have 'interfered' with you by casting their ballot for one of our last two presidents. 

This bar is too low to be meaningful. Showing direct material (not just angst) impact of SSM on your life is a much higher bar to pass--but it is one that needs to be met before you can call two gay people who want to get married a meaningful act of intolerance against yourself.

Similarly, a post on Facebook or Twitter is not "interference" in the sense of any kind of reasonable material damage to the person reading it. It expresses judgment and disapproval both of which are perfectly fair for the tolerant (they need not like or agree with everything--just not interfere, remember).

As a result, The Omnivore finds that YES: you can be a tolerant person and still not tolerate DoM (Prop 8) supporters.


  1. (Veronica here.)

    You know, I’m kinda done with folks whinging about this dude stepping down. It was never the simple fact he donated to this thing. Instead, it was what it tells us about his ongoing attitude — and surely he could have given some indication that his attitude had changed, if it had. (But nobody believes that.)

    I would not work for this guy. BECAUSE HE HATES ME. And having top management hating me is really gross. Nor would I donate time or energy to the project, and Firefox is largely open-source. This is volunteer work. A fair amount from queers.

    Look, this was not some schmuck in the server room working to pay rent. This was the big cheese, the top dog, the one chosen to lead the place. Nor was this a guy who was anti-gay in the past, but who has changed his mind, who is ready to lead a modern, queer-accepting organization. (Again, nobody believes that.)

    And he hates me. Fuck that guy.

    1. Yes--a very good point. The calls, as the urban legend goes, they were coming from 'inside the house.'