Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Difficulty of "Tolerance"

Well, 'intolerance' used to be a pejorative word for the 'right wingers' even though cultural critics and philosophers pointed out that the use of the word in society is often self-defeating.

In the old days, 'tolerance' is what we do to things that annoy us. The fly buzzing around my desk is annoying, so I tolerate it but I don't kill it. Intolerance is killing the fly.

It is intolerant to enslave African Americans. It is intolerant to kill Jews in the Halocaust. It is intolerant to refuse to hire someone because of their gender.

It is 'tolerant' to say profanity on public media is wrong, as long as you don't kill the person swearing. And it is 'tolerant' to disagree with homosexual practices, as long as you don't kill or slander homosexuals to push your view. It is 'tolerant' to stand in the public square why Christainty or Islam or Buddhism is wrong and shoudn't be practiced by reasonable humans, so long as you restrict those same people from saying the same. This is the old view of tolerance and the most sane version.

But today 'tolerance' and 'intolerance' mean something new. The meaning has been hijacked. 'Tolerance now means 'celebrating with someone who believes or does something opposed to what you believe is right.' 'Intolerance' is saying someone else is wrong.

And that definition of 'intolerance' is far from the mark. We aren't allowed to disagree or take a stand anymore if public opinion (e.g. the media or some high-profile, elite organization) has been swayed enough to say we shouldn't.

Yet even here is an inconsistency. We call it 'intolerant' for someone to picket an abortion clinic. But we don't cry foul when a political candidate says his opponent's view is the wrong one to follow. So deeply in the consciousness of the Western world is incoherence in search of meaning.

Yet, today's versions of 'intolerance' inflicts us all, right and left wing alike, because reason cannot be evaded forever.

We have a different case on our hands this week. In fact, what is so amazing about the recent events at Berkeley is that this bastion of free-thought likely thought themselves immune from thinking. But we all know that as soon as you call someone intolerant, you immediately become judgmental and intolerant of intolerance. You're a victim of your own accusation.

Here's an insightful article: Berkeley Council Becomes Home of Intolerance.