Tolerating Intolerance: Deconstructing The ‘Right’ To Bigotry

Nov 09 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

In a recent conversation about homosexuals serving in the military I ran into someone who really pulled out every cliché you can think of to support banning gays from military service.

Paraphrasing one core point, the argument went something like this:

I don’t have a problem with gays, but some people do.  That’s just the real world.  It’s all well and good to talk about tolerance, but some people don’t like that and if they don’t want to serve with gays they shouldn’t be forced to.  It’s just reality, some people are uncomfortable serving with gays.  Sure, all that peace and love stuff sounds good, but this is the real world.  I don’t like it any more than you do, but I recognize that’s how things are, and you have to preserve the morale of the unit.

This is a favorite line of reasoning among those who wish to preserve and defend institutionalized discrimination of any kind.  You can swap out any minority and any social interaction throughout the above paragraph, and it’s a certainty that someone has said it:

“I don’t have a problem with Jews, but some people do.  It’s all well and good to talk about tolerance, but some people don’t like that, and if they don’t want to eat with blacks then they shouldn’t be forced to.  It’s just reality, some people are uncomfortable working for a woman. “

All of these arguments then attempt to invert the offense:

Those people have a right to not like (x), and forcing them to (interact with x) is a violation of their rights.  Who are you to judge them for what they believe in?  YOU are the one who’s a bigot!

I know many reading have dealt with these lines of argument before, and I imagine some have even used them, and in both cases you’ve been struck with a sense that this makes no sense at all, but you couldn’t quite say why.

So let’s break it down, shall we?

I Got A Right

This is the core idea at the heart of much of the above argumentation.  “I’ve got a right” to be a bigot, “I’ve got a right” to not work for a woman, “I’ve got a right” to not rent my apartment to a homosexual.

In the purest sense of the phrase, you actually do have a right to all of these things.  You have the right to not work for a woman – you can stay home.  You have the right to not rent property to a homosexual – you can not rent property to anyone at all.  You have the right to not hire a black person – you can not operate a business.

But in the more practical sense, you don’t have those rights –  Not if you want to work, or be a landlord, or be an employer.  Not only don’t you have them, you shouldn’t have them – they are in fact not rights at all, but impositions of privilege.

The classic argument goes, “Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.”  This is a nice, plain-language way of saying that no human being has the right to cause harm to another.

Refusing to work for a female boss creates an excuse to not have women as bosses – that creates harm against women, both individually and as a class.  Refusing to hire a Muslim because they are Muslim creates harm against that person – direct financial harm, emotional harm, and the broader social harm of reinforcing stereotypes of bigotry.

Refusing to tolerate bigotry, however, is not a limitation of rights but a consequence of actions.  Bigotry is a choice, a behavior, a deliberate decision to impose your prerogatives on others without their consent.

And you say, “But you’re doing the same thing!”  It’s not the same thing.  Opposing bigotry is decent, humane, loving, productive, and a positive and preservative step for the species.  Being a bigot isn’t.  There is no argument in favor of bigotry that doesn’t rely on lies or dishonest interpretation of facts.

Passive-Aggressive Intolerance

My friend the eminently quotable Pope Snarky said it best:

“Tolerating intolerance is not, in fact, tolerance.  It is merely the passive-aggressive enabling of intolerance.”

In other words, it’s what people do who really agree with bigotry and discrimination, but they don’t want to admit it, to themselves or other people.

That attitude is the same as the kid who stands in the crowd watching bullies beat up on the ugly kid with bad teeth, thinking you’re better than the bullies because you aren’t throwing punches. Oh, sure, you’ll hang out with the ugly kid with bad teeth when there’s nobody around…but when the rest of your baseball team starts calling “horse-face,” you fade into the background. YOU accept that the ugly bad-teeth kid might be a good catcher, but if defending him hurts the morale of the team then that’s just how it is. Sorry, nothing you can do. It can’t be helped – it’s what the people want.

That attitude is the same as the millions of Europeans who looked the other way as the holocaust happened, thinking you’re just doing the pragmatic thing – no sense in fighting against the majority. YOU accept that the Jews may have very good products and prices, but if it affects the performance of the community then that’s just how it is. Your hands are tied.

That attitude is the same as the white southerner who keeps on eating at the whites-only lunch counter…YOU aren’t a bigot, but they’ve got good sandwiches and all your friends are there. YOU accept that the blacks are fine people and do no harm by eating at that lunch counter, but if it’s going to affect the morale of your co-workers to eat somewhere else then that’s just how it is. You’re powerless to do anything about it.

That attitude is the same as the guy who laughs with his friends at the “n****r” and “f****t” jokes, telling yourself that you’re not really like that but you’re just trying not to hurt your friends’ feelings. You accept that the blacks and homosexuals don’t deserve to be made fun of, but if confronting the people making the jokes will hurt the morale of your social circle, then that’s just how it is.

“I got nothing against the Negros, I just wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.”


“I have no problem with the Jews, but if I do business with them my Aryan friends won’t do business with ME…so I have to, you see. It’s not MY fault. I can’t make waves…it will hurt morale and the economy will suffer. I won’t be able to get groceries for my family.”

There’s a word for that.

That word is not “honor.”

That word is “coward.”

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John Henry is a social, media, and political analyst at LowGenius.Net

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