Wednesday, July 23, 2008

On tolerance and hypocrisy

Lately I've often seen people say that others are hypocritical when they pay lip service to tolerance, while at the same time they don't really like the people or phenomena that they pretend to be tolerant of.

What is so hypocritical about it? Isn't this what the whole concept of tolerance really means? When we say that we are tolerant about something, we mean that we are ready to put up with something that we don't like, are suspicious of, or are uncomfortable with. Sometimes people of course use the word when they mean that they are perfectly comfortable with something that they believe the wider society is intolerant of. In either case, however, the whole concept of tolerance implies that somebody somewhere disapproves of the thing we are being tolerant of. People rarely say that they are tolerant of hugs and chocolate.

I think tolerance is a good thing in general. (Like almost everyone else, I think that there are things that should not be tolerated, but this is not the point.) It is a good thing that for most of normal people in the Western society there are things - or people - that they don't like, but are still not willing to forbid or persecute. And frankly, I resent the idea that if I am tolerant of something or someone I have to pretend to like it or them.

Yes, most people believe that the severely retarded or the recovering drug abusers should be helped, but most people don't have to have anything to do with either of those groups. This is normal. To those who think that this is hypocritical and people should learn to embrace those groups or stop being tolerant - think twice what you are asking for. People are never really gonna like either of those groups, because statistically they mean trouble. What they are saying, in essence, is "I am ready to pay taxes so that the state can take care of those people, but preferably not right near my home". Do you really want them to say "I don't want any of those near my home, so there is no point in taking care of them anyway" instead?

(Yes, in the end they usually turn up situated near somebody's home, but almost everyone hopes it wouldn't be theirs. And one can play the same thing hypocritically - for example saying they we don't want them near our homes and condemning others for saying the exact same thing - but I don't think there is anything inherently hypocritical by thinking that they should be taken care of, but not wanting them around.)

One can be tolerant of blacks without wanting to live in a neighborhood with many of them, tolerant of immigrants without wanting to open the borders for everyone, tolerant of homosexuals without being comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, tolerant of single motherhood without thinking that this is just as good as having two parents, tolerant of low-hanging pants while thinking they are ugly, and tolerant of marijuana without smoking any. One can argue with at least some of these positions (for example one can argue about the effects of single motherhood with statistics, but arguing about whether or not low-hanging pants are ugly is not very productive), but none of them make people who hold them inherently intolerant.

If a white guy in the US interviews a black job applicant without giving a second thought to his or her race, but wouldn't even think of buying a home in a neighborhood with more than 5% of black residents, and then votes for a black presidential candidate for whom he would not have necessarily voted if he were white, and then is very concerned when his daughter starts dating a black guy, and then meets the guy and is a bit uncomfortable but concludes that the guy is OK, and then ends up happily playing with his half-black grandchildren, this does not usually come from his evil hypocrisy, intolerance or any kind of cognitive dissonance: this comes from the fact that in a lot of urban white people's experience a black employee is just an employee like any other, a black neighborhood always means more crime than a white one, a black president would be a new and cool thing to have, and a new black family member is a surprising and somewhat alarming development that one usually gets used to.

I don't see any point in making tolerance an all-or-nothing concept. This goes against the very concept of the thing, pisses off the people from whom said tolerance is demanded, and is only useful to the kind of people who want to be the only tolerant guy on the block. I think that a society where all things would be clearly divided in everyone's eyes into the Perfectly Good Things/People That Are Just As Good As Any Others on one side and Evil Things/People That We Should Not Tolerate Under Any Circumstances on the other would be, in fact, extremely intolerant.

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