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15.5.04

Tolerance

Mark Kleiman (via Matthew Yglesias) makes the old argument that it's hypocritical for pro-tolerance people to be intolerant of intolerant people. I don't think this argument holds up quite as well as it seems to on first glance. If your goal is to maximize total tolerance in society -- i.e., you treat tolerance as a social good rather than a personal virtue -- then it may be necessary to employ some selective intolerance. It's a contingent, rather than analytical, fact whether being intolerant of a bigot might maximize total tolerance by deterring him from practicing an amount of bigotry that outweighs your intolerance. It's similar to the way that, in the interests of maximizing freedom from coercion, we practice some selective coercion (enforcement of murder laws, for example).

That said, I think liberals and leftists often are too quick to assume that being intolerant of intolerant people will maximize tolerance. Barring situations of great urgency, I think it's better and ultimately more effective to change someone's beliefs and behaviors rather than cowing them into keeping silent. To do that, you need to demonstrate what respecting another viewpoint is like, by granting them a degree of tolerance. This is especially the case when numbers are not on your side -- we can probably keep the Republicans in the closet here at Clark, but good luck doing that in the country as a whole.

(And no, I'm not being intolerant of people who are intolerant of intolerant people. What makes tolerance different from acceptance is that you still disagree, and can make your case and try to convince others, but you don't show disrespect or coercion toward them.)

I should also point out that in my experience, the bad effects of hate (the strong, emotive form of intolerance) accrue to the hater as well as the hated -- though I'm open to the idea that my moral psychology is unusual. I don't mean merely that hate leads to retribution of some sort, but that the very act of (knowingly) hating makes me feel like a bad person. I won't say I'm not often tempted to blow off steam (more often than I care to think about, in fact), but it's like wanting to eat a whole box of ice cream. It sounds good in anticipation, but even before you're done you regret it.

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