On Tolerance

Tolerance is essential to our society. But intolerance is increasing in our country. People are increasing divided over religion, politics, ethnicity, race, sexuality and, it seems, just about everything. With the celebration of Juneteenth it seems appropriate to revisit this important topic. This article was originally written in 2017 but is, unfortunately, still relevant.

Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.” President John F. Kennedy

Tolerance is giving to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself.” Robert G. Ingersoll

I recently had a discussion with a person about GLBT rights. This person asserted that she was a “Christian” and didn’t “believe” in homosexuality. Therefore she could not “support” public events like the Duluth-Superior Pride parade and festivities. But as President John Kennedy said, allowing others to have their own beliefs or lifestyles does not imply you agree with or approve of them. It does not diminish the strength or validity of your own beliefs. It is simply acknowledging the equal rights of everyone.

Supporting tolerance is not about any particular lifestyle, belief, political persuasion, or religion. It is not about whether gays are right or wrong. It is not about whether they are sinners or about what the Bible or “god” allegedly says. It is about the right to be human and be secure in who you are. It is about equal protection under the law for everyone. It is about all citizens having the liberty to enjoy all the benefits of our society.

Tolerance is in everyone’s best interest. We respect others rights not because we agree with them, but because no one is free unless everyone is free. As the 19th century American orator and free thinker Robert Ingersoll said, we must give every human being the rights we claim for ourselves. If we do not, then we will certainly have many problems in a modern, ethnically, racially, religiously, and politically diverse world. We see the the results of intolerance in the many conflicts in our country and around the world. Tolerance is a necessary cornerstone of civilization.

Some people do not accept these principles. They believe tolerance is a weakness. It is compromising their beliefs. It implies that there are no standards for society. But this is not the case. It is a matter of having social norms and laws that allow society to function with a maximum of freedom consistent with peace and security for everyone.

Freedom must have limits if you are to have a society. John Stewart Mills, in his famous work On Liberty, lays out the classic criteria.

…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

In other words, your freedom to swing your arm stops at the nose of your neighbor. Society has a right and obligation to restrict your freedom when it negatively impacts others. So society needs laws and regulations to organize society, establish the rules of the game, and to protect public health and safety. But these should be based on the actual needs of society and not religious dogma.

Your belief about what is “moral” or better for others is not the determining criteria. Neither is what the majority believes or wants. This is why we have checks and balances on the power of the majority. This is one reason (among many) why separation of church and state is so important. Government should not be “respecting” any establishment of religion nor supporting any specific religious belief or dogma. Fundamentalist Christians are free to espouse their positions on issues or to lobby the government for various actions. But they do not have the right to impose their religious dogma on others.

Tolerance must also apply to political differences. Free speech is essential for protecting political freedom. This requires protecting all speech including what some people may find obscene, obnoxious, unpatriotic, or otherwise objectionable. This is why freedom of press is so important. It is why whistle blowers and protesters should be protected. All freedom depends on the ability of citizens to criticize the government and to advocate their positions.

Again there are limits. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, free speech does not allow you to falsely yell fire in a crowded theater. Free speech does not protect fraud, lying, slander, or deceptive advertising. Generally the courts have ruled that free speech could not be a defense when harm would result, the speech promoted an illegal act, incited or threatened violence.

Which brings us to the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlotte N.C. Certainly the the far right fascists have a right to march and speak out about their political views. We may not like what they say or represent. But they have a right to assemble and speak. But they do not have a right to preach hate or engage in intimidation and violence. Nor should they be allowed to form militias and to carry guns in public.

Both sides are not responsible for the violence that occurred in Charlotte. There is NO equivalence between people peacefully marching against hate and white supremacists marching with known symbols of racism, hate, and violence (torches, swastikas, Confederate flags, guns). When people march with these symbols they are not engaging in protected speech. The KKK and other white supremacy groups have a long history or violence. These are the same people who used discriminatory laws, intimidation, and violence (creating fear, beatings, lynching, burning crosses, bombing churches) in the past to terrorize and suppress the rights of others. When they march with the symbols of hate and past violence they are engaged in terrorism. They are yelling fire.

We have a long history of the government suppressing dissent. Many advocates of progressive change have been harassed, arrested, and jailed for promoting peace, voting rights, or unions. Ironically Justice Holmes’ dictum on yelling fire upheld the conviction of a military draft protester. So why is obvious right wing violence not prosecuted? Many KKK lynchings went unpunished. Recently armed men stopped a federal law enforcement action. In another incident an armed group took over a wildlife preserve. They were not punished.

We need to be more tolerant and civil in discussions of social, religious, and political issues. But we do not have to allow the advocacy of hate or threats of violence.