Monday, July 31, 2006


(News-Herald, July 27) Tolerance has been a difficult issue for Americans since day one.
It makes a lovely tale to describe how the Pilgrims came and settled in the new world so they could be free of religious persecution. But the Puritans of Massachusetts turned around and began executing anyone who disagreed with them—and not just witches and pagans, but peace-loving Quakers as well.
So our ongoing issues with tolerance are neither new nor unusual.
The extreme versions of intolerance are violence, killing those persons that we believe should not be tolerated. Less extreme intolerance appears in simple verbal abuse. Verbal abuse can be good old fashioned name calling, or the specialized type where we label someone a heinous menace so that other folks will be encouraged to become even more intolerant of them.
So when a conservative pundit tells an interviewer that all gay men want to kidnap boys and covert them to gayosity, that’s intolerance. And when a liberal pundit replies that such a statement is just like the things the Nazis said right before they rounded up Jews and killed them, that’s intolerance, too.
Conservatives are perhaps more famous for being intolerant, for suggesting that our nation should not have to tolerate people of the wrong religion, the wrong race, the wrong life-style.
But liberals can be equally intolerant of various groups, starting with groups of people who have strong beliefs. There is something ironic in their inability to tolerate intolerance.
All intolerant behavior is rooted in one simple belief: “I am right and you are wrong; therefore, it’s okay for me to treat you badly.”
The most common approach to fixing intolerance is to address only the first half of that proposition. That’s why we keep finding ourselves in the same stupid mess time after time.
Forty years ago, mushy-headed liberals responded to the belief by saying, “Look, we’re not wrong. Nobody’s wrong. It doesn’t matter what you believe—everybody can be right.” Various cultures and religions and lifestyles are not really wrong at all, if you just squint properly. People who worship balls of string have a perfectly valid point of view. We were all supposed to tolerate everything. Well, everybody except the people who didn’t want to tolerate everyone—those people were dead wrong.
The hard-headed conservative reply has been to say, “Oh no. We really are right. We’re very very right, and you’re very very wrong.” The Right has responded by putting their feet down hard. There is a definite Right and a definite Wrong and they know exactly where the line is drawn, dammit. People who butter their toast funny cannot be trusted, and perhaps should be locked up.
It’s particularly difficult when neither side has any basis in fact. Arguments, for example, about whether homosexuality is genetically wired or a lifestyle choice are pointless—nobody knows. I know what my own experience and observation leads me to believe (I vote genetics)—but I have absolutely no hard facts to back that up, and neither do the people who disagree with me.
So the Right and Left argue on, holding fast to the “No, I really am right” point of view, tossing evidence and opinions at each other like big pointy sticks.
They’re having the wrong argument. The secret of tolerance is not in the first half of that proposition. It’s in the second half, the notion that somehow we can treat people differently if they’re wrong.
Christians, frankly, ought to already know this. Scripture addresses both halves of the sentence. First of all, there’s the matter of Being Right. The Bible is pretty clear on this—let he who is without sin cast the first stone, and all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. In other words, you’re not all THAT right, so just cool your jets.
As for the second half of the sentence, there’s a ton of writing that addresses that. The Golden Rule just happens to be the best-known. It all boils down to “Treat other people well.” At this point people always want to start whining, “But they’re WRONG—“
Doesn’t matter. The instructions are not “Treat other people well if you agree with them” or “Treat other people well if you like them” and certainly not “Treat other people well if you think they deserve it.” The path to tolerance doesn’t get much clearer than that.
Authority figures (teachers, for example) cannot be thought police, forcing everyone to Think Proper Ideas. But authority figures can, and should, insist that people treat each other well, with kindness, decency, dignity and respect, no matter how Wrong you may think they are.

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