Tolerance and justice


In a comment on yesterday’s post, Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort writes:

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.

Comments

  1. jhendrix says

    This is a really good post that I may very well have to bookmark. The “intolerance of intolerance” fallacy is one that has been put up time and time again.

  2. kagekiri says

    Nice!

    I had always tried to frame it with “tolerance by definition means you can’t tolerate intolerance”, but it makes WAY more sense to specify the type of tolerance you’re trying to cultivate (people) and distinguish it from the intolerance of various forms of discrimination or intolerance of bad actions. Your explanation works pretty dang well.

  3. Tige Gibson says

    The real problem is hypocrisy. Intolerance is only a symptom of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a normalized condition in religion. People are exposed to it so much that they block it out of consciousness. Side effects include inability to recognize irony, parody, satire, and humor of the form “funny because it’s true”. For a religious person, pointing out something true about them is offensive.

  4. smrnda says

    The person versus idea is really the key to understanding that there’s really no substance to the ‘tolerance is intolerant since it doesn’t tolerate intolerance’ fallacy. If we are to be tolerant of people, we have to be intolerant of certain ideas, or at least we have to prevent the ideas from becoming the basis for laws.

  5. says

    I understand where you are coming from with this. I think that supposing that folks ought to be tolerant of injustice is quite a stumble. I am not sure who first advocated this erroneous idea ;nevertheless, it has no correspondence with the truth and what is efficacious. First and foremost, I will let it be known that I am a believer in the life, ministry, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Let’s get that out of the way and I hope you will still honestly consider the things I am about to say irrespective of my religious affiliation as I do consider opinions of various worldviews in my ardent journey for what I believe to be truth. (Otherwise, I would be committing the genetic fallacy.)

    So, I will say this much. There are many practices that have become more or less normative in this generation. Many of these pertain to sexual expression. I can go in depth about it but I’d vie to let you do your own research in truth but Jesus-following Christians (The real kind) believe that many of these practices are utterly destructive to persons and families. That is why we will not, in good conscience, support any that advocate these practices. This is not all inclusive to sexual practices but there are others as well.

    I say it is true that there are many “Christian” hippocrates. I don’t consider myself of this ilk. If there is an area of the Bible or command I struggle with, I will let my failing be known. I will try my best to not allow it to be an occasion for another to stumble but, even in considering this possibility, my behavior does change (by the grace of God and not of me). The summation is that I believe that whatever the Bible says (taken into proper context considering the history and biblically derived concepts that must be taken into account) is true and that my failings is a result of my sinful flesh. The Bible never says a believer will be perfect. Quite the contrary. Romans 6 has this much to say.

    “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

    21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

    You see. That is the plight of a believer. I’m not going to lie and act like one of those Bible-thumping hippocrates because I know better. I’m a sinner and guilty like the rest of us. I am in as much need for a savior as the next guy. We’re all in the same boat and guess what? It’s sinking. Fret not. The Bible says there is a way out. That way is putting your trust in Jesus. Of course, that’s what the book says. It could be wrong but I challenge you to consider the possibility if it is not. Thank you for reading.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Hi Alex,

      I’m all for basing your conclusions on an investigation of the facts, but the problem I’ve found (after having been a Bible-believing evangelical from my mid-teens through my early forties) is that the people who report their “findings” to Christians frequently distort their results in order to promote this or that agenda. There’s a problem with accuracy there, and even a problem with self-consistency.

      Take gay marriage, for example. I don’t believe it would be possible for the Christian God to be the source of the idea that same-sex unions are immoral and perverted since (as we’ve recently discussed here) the Trinity is, by definition, an eternal, holy and loving same-sex union. In marriage, the two only become one flesh, but in the Trinity the three become one God. Clearly, the homophobic parts of the Bible must come from the carnal, unrestrained passions of fleshly men who let their sexual lusts overrule their contemplation of God, because God would not describe His own nature in such evil terms.

      And yet, we find believers going out of their way to distort and misrepresent the facts concerning gay marriage. This is not the way to grow into a knowledge of the truth. Gay relationships are really no better or worse than heterosexual relationships, except to the extent that gay relationships are subject to relentless persecution by people who claim to be pursuing God’s law. Meanwhile the dogmas of Christianity do have negative consequences, of which mistreatment of gays is only one example, and not by any means the worst.

    • says

      @Alex:

      It’s lovely you’re a believer, that’s fine and dandy. But I would hope you are aware that not everyone is and that not everyone should be forced to follow through with what you, as a Christian believe. There are two things in relation to your post as a whole I’d like to address before I get to the meat of your argument:

      a) I’m an atheist. I do not believe in God or sin. I am willing to conclude there may have been a messianic, apocalyptic preacher around the BC/AD barrier whose ministry was important to a number of Jewish persons, but I don’t think Jesus was divine.

      b) The Captain Kirk Test – Quoting the Bible at an atheist is like quoting Captain Kirk. It will have no net effect in the end.

      Now to your post:

      There are many practices that have become more or less normative in this generation. Many of these pertain to sexual expression. I can go in depth about it but I’d vie to let you do your own research in truth but Jesus-following Christians (The real kind) believe that many of these practices are utterly destructive to persons and families. That is why we will not, in good conscience, support any that advocate these practices. This is not all inclusive to sexual practices but there are others as well.

      So what? Who made you the law of the land? As I put above, not everyone should be beholden to Christian belief. As long as one’s practices do not harm someone, then I don’t care what they do. Decrease suffering, increase happiness – that is my belief. A lot of the supposed harm done to those who engage in same-sex coupling is because of the unneeded stigma and the abuse piled upon gay men and lesbian women. By saying you will not advocate the “practices” you are saying you will not support the love between two men or two women.

      Also, who are you to determine whether someone is a “true Christian” or not? I take people at their word. Belief in a Christian deity is enough to be considered a Christian. Do you doubt if a person is a true Hindu? Or a true Muslim? It’s completely and utterly arrogant to consider your version of Christianity the only true, real kind of Christianity.

      You see. That is the plight of a believer. I’m not going to lie and act like one of those Bible-thumping hippocrates because I know better. I’m a sinner and guilty like the rest of us. I am in as much need for a savior as the next guy. We’re all in the same boat and guess what? It’s sinking. Fret not. The Bible says there is a way out. That way is putting your trust in Jesus. Of course, that’s what the book says. It could be wrong but I challenge you to consider the possibility if it is not. Thank you for reading.

      You call yourself a non-Bible-Thumper, and yet you thump the Bible at us and follow through with the same unwelcome platitudes of every believer ever. Guess what, a lot of atheists (Deacon Duncan included) used to be Christian. I used to be Christian. I’ve heard it, I’ve read it, I’ve lived it, I left it. Christianity caused me to hate and hide who I am, leaving me with unchecked anxiety and depression because I feel like I addressed my gender identity too late in life.

      And once more, I draw to your mind my two “meta-points” above. We don’t believe in sin, and quoting the Bible is as effective as quoting Captain Kirk. Was it not Kirk who said:

      “Leave bigotry in your quarters; there’s no room for it on the bridge.” and “The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.”

      I think I like those statements a lot more than I like the Bible.

    • walkingmap says

      Doesn’t the “plight of a believer” with respect to gay men or gay women come down to the fact that you can’t reconcile your bible and its injunction to kill homosexuals with your own “innate” sense that killing another human being, for loving another human being, is reprehensible?
      So the good Christian is simply intolerant as the good Christian was intolerant of black and white unions, with biblical support, a mere 60 years ago, an abomination… like eating a shrimp cocktail.
      The “plight of a believer” is how to justify belief in yahweh, Jesus, and the tenets of the bible with reality.

  6. goedjn says

    I understand what you’re trying to get at, but I don’t think that tolerance is really what you’re talking about. The thing is that tolerance needs to be tempered by judgment. Zero tolerance (which is what we call intolerance when we’re in favor of it) is just as bad as excessive tolerance.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      You bring up a valid point. My post suggests that there’s nothing wrong with being intolerant of bad ideas, and that’s probably an oversimplification. I should have said there’s nothing automatically wrong with being intolerant of wrong ideas. Being intolerant of “wrong” people (i.e. wrong gender, wrong religion, wrong orientation, etc) is always bad; being intolerant of wrong ideas may or may not be wrong. I’ve seen “zero tolerance” policies that were indeed absurd, and a bit more judgment ought to have been involved in framing and applying the policy.

      So the bottom line is that intolerance towards people is always wrong, and intolerance towards ideas needs to be backed up by judgment and reason.

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