When people feel the need to state explicitly how “tolerant” they are, it’s usually a sign that something is amiss. Such is the case with Bristol Palin’s recent blog post, where she declares that she would have no problem with a gay dance partner, but laments that others are unwilling to extend the same tolerance to certain Christian beliefs:
In their simplistic minds, the fact that I’m a Christian, that I believe in God’s plan for marriage, means that I must hate gays and must hate to even be in their presence. Well, they were right about one thing: there was hate in that media room, but the hate was theirs, not mine. …
Look, my responsibility is pretty darn clear: to treat people as I would like to be treated, to be gracious, and – yes – to uphold and advance my Christian principles in all that I do. Would I want a gay dancer to refuse to dance with me because of my beliefs? Why would I refuse to dance with a gay man because of his?
To the Left, “tolerance” means agreeing with them on, well, everything. To me, tolerance means learning to live and work with each other when we don’t agree – and won’t ever agree.
At first glance, this seems like a pretty straightforward example of tolerance: I accept you, can’t you accept me? The problem is that, in this case, the ideal of tolerance is being used to call for inaction in the face of intolerance. Palin implicitly parallels two instances of tolerance – the first is simply tolerating the existence and presence of gay people; the second is tolerating the belief that the defining feature of gay people, as embodied in their relationships, is immoral and should be legally treated as unequal.
These are clearly quite different things. Under a meaningful understanding of what tolerance is, there are indeed some beliefs that are simply unacceptable – indeed, they are intolerable. Think about it: Is there any belief that you would consider so unreasonable and inhumane that passively tolerating it, and remaining silent in the face of it, would be more unacceptable to you than speaking out and letting it be known that you’re not okay with that? For instance, do you see no difference between women voting and those who would act to prevent them from voting, or gay people holding a parade and those who would seek to suppress them by violence, or women wearing the clothes of their choice and those who demand they be cloaked in veils, or gay people merely existing and others who want to execute them? At what point do you recognize that such things are not just two sides of one coin, not just an innocuous difference of opinion, and plainly not the same?
If you can acknowledge that it is possible for certain beliefs to be so troubling that you cannot accept them, then you can understand that this is only a matter of where we draw that line. And many of us draw the line at the belief that gay people’s love is immoral and should be legally unrecognized. If our commitment to tolerance has any teeth to it, then advocating tolerance of gay people necessarily precludes being okay with such anti-gay beliefs. After all, if someone claimed to tolerate your own beliefs, how much would that really mean to you if they never spoke out in protest when others called for such homophobic Christian speech to be criminalized? Such an obligation to object should at least be familiar on a conceptual level to Christians, who have often claimed that “loving” someone demands that we tell them the unvarnished “truth” about the supposed sinfulness of their sexuality.
Calling for tolerance, at the most basic level and regardless of the specifics of what we believe ought to be tolerated, means advocating one approach to beliefs and expressions over another. A kind of universal “tolerance” that says literally anything is okay negates that, and as a result, it’s barely even coherent or distinct as a position. At most, it has all the force of “I think this might be a good idea, but, you know… whatever.” If you think that tolerance of you or your beliefs is at all important, then realize that tolerance needs to be more compelling than that. Tolerance doesn’t mean agreeing with “the Left” – it means, at a minimum, agreeing that tolerance should actually stand for something. And if you expect to be admired for your tolerance, then espousing a position that amounts to “I’m so tolerant, I’ll never let anyone know I disapprove of prejudice against minorities!” isn’t the best way to make that happen.
Image, top: Bristol Palin and Mark Ballas, Dancing With The Stars, 2010
Zinnia Jones is an atheist activist, writer, and video blogger focusing on LGBTQ rights and religious belief. Originally from Chicago, she’s currently living in Florida with her partner Heather and their two children.
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