This is the fifth post in a series of however many I feel like blog posts on the misuse and abuse of language with regard to controversial topics. For some context, it might be helpful to read the posts in order starting with the first one. The second one, third one, and fourth one may also be of interest. Maybe I’ll even manage a sixth entry in the series. It’s not as if there’s a lack of material in our wild public discourse.
The War on Words can get very petty when the war is conducted on the home front where personal attacks are common and passions are high. Accusations as to the abominable nature of an opponent’s character rain upon the field of battle where we wrestle with issues of our own social status and personal pursuit of happiness. It’s not unlike the old childhood games of deciding who gets to play with the cool kids and the new toys and who does not get to do that. The main difference is that as adults, we have less excuse for that sort of nonsense. I dislike tolerating childish nonsense from adults, and yet I often have to.
Tolerance is a much-coveted virtue these days, although I probably wouldn’t include it in a list of virtues if asked. We have all sorts of folks calling us to tolerance, but what does tolerance mean? Well, the word has multiple meanings. One of those meanings suggests that being tolerant is to put up with something burdensome or reprehensible. Another suggests that tolerance lies in those who have developed a resistance to the ill effects of a mild neurotoxin. When used in that sense, which it often is when referring to those we find repugnant, tolerance is not a virtue at all. It’s a pragmatic attempt to prevent destructive behavior. Which is fine, but hardly exemplary or impressive. I’ll not be giving out any cookies for that.
The other understanding of tolerance is the expression of a fair-minded and permissive attitude, an attitude that fosters the absence of bigotry. This is perhaps closer to a virtue, though I am reluctant to include permissiveness in the definition of a virtue. It suggests that others need your permission, which is often simply not the case and should not be the case in a free society where we act like adults. The thing that amuses me so much about the movement towards tolerance is how incredibly condescending it is while making every pretense of being quite the opposite.
Nonetheless, you must be tolerant. After all, if you aren’t tolerant, you must be one of those evil bigots.
And speaking of bigots, who’s a bigot anyway? Thankfully, that’s a much simpler matter. The definition is fairly clear. A bigot is the sort of person who is utterly intolerant of differing beliefs, the kind of person who can’t deal with people having opinions very different from their own and is easily offended by expressions of opinion that do not fit with their vision of appropriate conduct. The great thing about bigotry is that it’s an equal opportunity phenomenon. You find it in people of all races, creeds, and hairstyles. It’s one of the things that we really share as human beings, a trait that is prevalent in all of our arbitrary groupings of people that are at best based on superficial qualities.
And many of the people who are quite aghast at bigotry when it is directed at members of their group think it’s totally acceptable when directed at a group that don’t like. White supremacists who think that attacking a white kid is atrocious, but the thousands of violent deaths of black kids each year isn’t really worth talking about. Terrorists who think that our government’s actions are terrible, but their blowing a lot of people up is totally justified. Socialist revolutionaries who are alarmed at how the wealthy enrich themselves at the expense of the poor, but don’t seem to mind enriching their cronies and killing folks who get in their way. Corporate executives who think that the poor have it too easy these days right before they step on their private plane to earn hundreds of dollars per hour for talking to people in a big room. I could go on, because almost every group has members who engage in rank hypocrisy when it comes to bigotry.
The real tragedy of bigotry is less about how often it occurs and more about how often we fail to see our own participation in it. We so often see ourselves as the innocent victims of bigotry and never the perpetrators of it, an exercise of self-delusion that is truly impressive.
Perhaps someday we can be honest with ourselves and accepting of others, but I suspect that for now we will be stuck in the ruts of tolerance and bigotry while complaining about how someone else should be moving us forward.