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Thursday, September 30, 2010

To what extent should a tolerant society tolerate intolerance?

    I really, really believe in an free and open marketplace of ideas, in tolerance of others and their ideas, and in the value of a pluralistic society generally.  However, as my friend Peg recently pointed out, this leads to the dilemma of how we, as tolerant individuals and a (hopefully) tolerant society, deal with (often aggressively) intolerant people.  In thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that this dilemma may be a major contributing factor in current political tension and irritation, both for me as an individual and for my fellow citizens, and is a subterranean cause of a certain amount of the anger and resentment that is floating around.

   OK, I'm a nice liberal.  I believe in the separation of Church and State, and that all racial, religious and ethnic groups (and gender and age and sexual preference groups for that matter) should be treated with respect.  But how do I deal with groups that are not willing to offer me (or my fellow citizens) the same respect?  What, if any deference and respect should I give to Nazis who want to march in Skokie, to white "Aryan" racists, to Ministers who want to burn the Koran, or to violent Islamic fundamentalists who call for death to cartoonists (and me, if they were to think about it)?

  Well, let me start with my traditional liberal answer. 

Permissable Stuff:  You can think or believe intolerant thoughts.  You can refuse to associate with me or others.  You can burn my flag, or my or others' Holy books (if you own the copies).  Propose and argue for almost any change in the law. You can say really stupid stuff.  You can call people names, even if you are inaccurate.  You can tell lies, subject to exposure and the laws relating to defamation.  You can peacefully march or demonstrate or rally for about anything.  You can form a political or social group that advocates almost (see below)anything (does everyone know what NAMBLA is?)

Impermissable Stuff:  Trying to force others (either physically or legally) to believe (or, within limits) act as you do. Doing violence to others' persons or property.  Directly advocating violence to others' persons or property or causing riots or shouting fire in a crowded theater (I know, limits on speech).  Actually doing other certain proscribed things that you may believe in (ie. Polygamy, sex with minors, not providing your children with medical care, not sending your children to school (up to a certain age) ),  job-related discrimination , public accomodation related discrimination, housing discrimination, all related to certain protected classifications as set by law.

There are some lines here.  Can you burn your own flag? Yes.  One that I own? No.  Can you darkly hint at exercising "Second Amendment remedies" if you don't win an election?  Probably.  Can you actually call for the populace to rise up in armed revolt?  No.  Can you march with a Swastika flag in Skokie (if you have a permit)?  Yes.  Can you spray paint one on my garage?  No.  Can you openly be a Satanist?  Yes.  Can you start sacrificing people?  No. And so on.

One problem with this is that it (and other rules defined to protect "minority" or unpopular views ) just feels unfair.  Christians and Jews don't have freedom of religion in many Islamic countries.  Islamic radicals are threatening our citizens with death for anything that they find offensive or insulting, and are declaring Holy War.  Blacks sometimes blame all manner of things on whites, claim that there is no such thing as a Black "racist", and call us "evil".  Latinos demand special classes to be taught in spanish (not the same thing but it feels like it).  Affirmative Action, if based on race or gender, is, by definition, not even handed, and one wonders just how long people are going to be given advantages based on historical discrimination.  In short, you [pick your disliked group here-I recommend the Atheists, because I've ignored them so far] want me to play nice with you while you absolutely refuse to even pretend to play nice with me.  I've got to tell you, my emotional reaction is not to be nice.

I know that this feeling is not totally rational.  After all, my fellow American citizen Moslems are certainly willing to live in communities with Churches, Synagogues or whatever.  And we're not always expected to tolerate everything. If an Iman preaching in New Jersey were to recommend that an offending cartoonist should be killed, I would hope and expect the authorities to have him in the slammer, without bail, by sundown.  More significantly, just because overseas Governments (or groups) are acting "badly" [note how I restrained my language here] does not mean we should abandon our (or at least my) most deeply held principles.  Other groups have experienced historical oppression or discrimination, and may deserve some slack.  After all, a minority or otherwise powerless group, even if intolerant, is less likely to have the power to oppress or injure us.  (Now when these groups become the majority - Mormons in Utah, Blacks in certain urban areas, and Jews in Isreal, things may not be so pretty-but that's another subject).

But, here is liberalism's dirty secret (or one of them), it does not seem fair because it is not fair, and the American people (or as we Jewish/secularist/liberal/elite swine like to think of them - the great, unwashed, white Christian masses [I really hope you understand that I'm joking with that line]) are entitled to feel very angry.  Denying the (at least) emotional validity of these feelings of anger has not and will not help us liberals politically.  I think the point that has to be made is "OK, it's not fair, so what do we do"?  Anger, whether at this type of unfairness or at economic conditions [and, boy, are we entitled to be angry about that]   is not really a substitute for policy.  "Throw the bums out" can be, but it depends on who we replace them with.  Right now, a lot of us seem to be supporting snake oil salesmen.  Enough.

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