What Is Intolerance?

Ken AshfordSex/Morality/Family ValuesLeave a Comment

James Kerchick, a gay conservative, writes an editorial about his latest break-up.  The reason was because his lover couldn’t deal with the author’s conservative values.  So he writes:

So much for dating a proud, progressive, and ostensibly tolerant liberal. But with him, as with other liberals I know, tolerance does not always extend to appreciating someone else’s differing political views.

Others have addressed this comment, but I have to add my own views.

Kerchick is employing a very misguided and underhanded tactic here by bastardizing the word "tolerance".  He criticizes the "tolerant left" by arguing that the left is hypocritical — that the left is, when it comes right down to it, intolerant.

The flaw in Kerchick’s logic is that he assumes that "tolerance" means mindlessly embracing things with which we disagree.  It’s a fake definition, prompting people like Amanda Marcotte to ask: "Should feminists prove our ‘tolerance’ by handing out hand jobs at KKK rallies?"

The answer, of course, is ‘no’.  I am not tolerant of the KKK, I am not tolerant of the use of torture, I am not tolerant of indifference to AIDS, I am not tolerant of violent religious extremism, I am not tolerant of a lot of things.  But to my mind, this does not make me "intolerant" — it is merely (I hope) "tolerant of everything except intolerance".

There is a very interesting discussion in the comments section to Kathy G’s post on the Kerchick column (at Ezra Klein’s site) about how and whether differing values (especially political values) make for poison in personal relationships.  For myself, I know I can date a conservative person, or a person of a different religious persuasion, or whatever, and still respect her viewpoints.  That standing alone is not a problem.

But with everything, when one’s values dictate their actions, it makes things more difficult.  Take for example, this comment:

I probably wouldn’t be able to successfully date a very devout Roman Catholic (it’s not come up yet) because I would disagree with a number of their beliefs surrounding sexual intimacy and birth control. That’s not because I am intolerant of Roman Catholicism. Condoms are just non-negotiable for me.

The commenter there clearly is not expressing intolerance of the Roman Catholic faith per se, but the expression of that faith in action (the reluctance for birth control use) for that particular person within the context of a relationship.

The block quote above demonstrates that tolerance has a societal component, and a personal component.  Liberals espouse tolerance has a societal and political virtue, and indeed it is.  Conservatives on the other hand — especially social conservatives — have possess no such social value (go to a conservative website, and it’s a screed of intolerance — for atheists, for immigrants, for gays, etc.). 

But it is quite another thing on a personal level.  I’m tolerant of (and an advocate for) gay rights, but just because I won’t sleep with men doesn’t make me "intolerant" of gays.  Why is this so hard for the Kerchicks of the world to understand?