I hate the “intolerance of intolerance is intolerance” meme that’s spread around the religious world.
“You can’t be critical of my discrimination because it’s part of my religion and therefore you’re discriminating against my religion and that makes you the bigot, not me!”
I agree with Katherine. This is a meme that’s spreading because people don’t really understand what tolerance is, and how it relates to justice. So let’s clarify those concepts a bit more.
Tolerance is when you put limits on how people treat other people, so that no one is at an unfair disadvantage. Tolerance, in other words, puts equal limits on everyone’s behavior, to create a safe and fair environment for everybody.Intolerance, by contrast, arbitrarily penalizes certain people in order to put them at an unfair disadvantage relative to the bigots. When the subject is people, the issue of tolerance vs. intolerance is a moral issue, because this kind of intolerance is immoral—it harms innocent people.
You can also be tolerant, or intolerant, with respect to certain ideas, but that’s when the issue of tolerance vs. intolerance ceases to be a moral issue. Ideas are not people, and they don’t have the same moral value as people. Some ideas are good and some are bad, and there’s nothing at all immoral about rejecting the bad ideas.
This doesn’t mean it’s ok to penalize people for expressing ideas you disagree with. Moral tolerance puts limits on your behavior, and does not permit you to deprive the other person of their right to free speech. But when you yourself personally reject the idea of, say, racism, you’re being intolerant of an idea, not of a person. You can reject racism all you want, without ever practicing intolerance towards people, and you’re fine, morally speaking.
What about penalties for the intolerant, though? If we impose sanctions on those who practice intolerance towards people, have we violated the principle that tolerance puts limits on our behavior? No, because tolerance is an ideal that must be mediated and protected by justice. It’s all well and good to declare that intolerance is immoral, but if there are no negative consequences for immoral behavior, what’s to stop people from doing it anyway?
This is where we need to understand the idea of justice vs. injustice. Justice punishes people for doing the wrong thing, and injustice punishes people for being the wrong thing. Justice discourages wrong behavior by imposing a penalty that’s proportional to the harm caused by the miscreant. Thus, to the extent that people cause harm to others, through their intolerant behavior towards people, it is only fair and just for them to receive penalties proportional to the harm they cause. To the extent that people are only guilty of being the “wrong” thing (in the bigot’s eyes), it would be unjust and immoral to penalize them, because that would be genuine, immoral intolerance.
When racists attempt to marginalize other races, and to subject them to economic and social disadvantages, it is only justice, and not intolerance, when the racists find themselves marginalized and unable to, say, successfully run for political office. Those who successfully promote intolerant behavior towards people are guilty of crimes that produce tangible harm and that deserve proportional penalties. This is not intolerance, this is applying justice in a way that promotes genuine tolerance and discourages immoral intolerance.
The same is true with respect to fundamentalists who seek to oppress and marginalize unbelievers, and homophobes who seek to promote intolerance and oppression of gays. Intolerance of people is what is immoral; intolerance of bigoted ideas a virtue, because it is the most consistent with being tolerant of people.
Intolerance of intolerant ideas is not intolerance of people. The latter is immoral, the former is a virtue.