“Tolerance” As Social Control

Jane Smiley has an interesting piece in the Huffington Post in response to a post by Mark Joseph calling Anne Lamott’s passionate defense of her pro-choice beliefs “intolerant.”

Leftist Christians, like Lamott, are supposed to be “tolerant”, which means, I suppose, that they aren’t supposed to offend “anti-choice” Christians with the intensity of their principles. But in my experience, what pro-choice women are supposed to “tolerate” is the proclaimed right of anti-choice Christians to tell them what to do with their reproductive lives, their bodies, their families, and their birth control choices. Where does “tolerance” enter in here? Tolerance is about agreeing to disagree. Anti-choice and anti-abortion activism is not about agreeing to disagree, it is about social control.

I’d expand Smiley’s point a bit: it’s not just anti-choice and anti-abortion activists who sling the “intolerance” charge at leftists. It happens all the time with conservatives and conservatarians: leftist makes a strong statement of opinion, con makes charge of intolerance, usually adding that liberals are supposed to be tolerant. Variations include likening the Democratic party to a plantation and black Democrats to slaves, calling liberals “the real racists” in reaction to being called out on racism, and on and on. It’s an attempt to control the target by shaming. Since liberals pride themselves on being tolerant, charges of intolerance sting — which, of course, right-wingers know quite well:

When Christians talk about secular Americans being “tolerant” of Christian beliefs, they are misusing the word. What conservative Christians want is not toleration, but social control. Toleration takes place between two people who know one another, and is a feature of personal relationships. Social control is about who gets the power to dictate policy and law. Christians like Mark Joseph sometimes play the “tolerance” card as a way to present themselves as a disempowered group, but what it is about them that is disempowered is their ability to tell the rest of us what to do. And most of the rules they want us to follow are abstract–rules about how men and women should relate, rules about what families should look like, rules about what people should learn. The program, for Christian conservatives, is not essentially about faith or morality–those are elements in a larger program. The larger program is enforcing conformity. What’s the real goal? Well, no doubt it is money and power–have you seen how wealthy the Pope is? Of Pat Robertson? Or the pastors of some of those other mega-churches?

It doesn’t always come from the right, either — it can come from the left, too, usually as a means of enforcement. I certainly caught it from both the right and the left in the comments to my post about the incredibly incompetent paralegal at my firm (who has mercifully been fired). From the left: I was called classist, elitist, insensitive, blind to my privilege, and it was suggested that I was incompetently managing the situation (despite the fact that I am not management around here).

And from the right: “Hey, I thought sisterhood was powerful. First off, why don’t you just TALK to her?” Followed by a suggestion that it was my job to buttonhole this woman and remind her that women before us busted their asses so that we could be where we are today.

So, shaming from both sides — from the left, charges of intolerance to get me in line with orthodoxy. And from the right, sneering about sisterhood and a reminder that liberals are supposed to be tolerant. Message: conform.


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11 comments for ““Tolerance” As Social Control

  1. February 21, 2006 at 1:16 pm

    these are great points. i’m highly suspicious of the idea of “tolerance” as a virtue, when you get right down to it.

    i guess it’s all semantics, but when it comes to social issues, i don’t want to feel like i should be happy others are “tolerant” of my lifestyle, my choices, etc. there’s such an air of condescention about it, you know? oh, why thank you for “tolerating” me.

    you tolerate airport delays, you shouldn’t tolerate people. you should accept them.

  2. February 21, 2006 at 1:27 pm

    I hate the word “tolerance” too, because it implies holding ones nose and “tolerating” others — and those others are inevitably people of color, gays and lesbians, etc. But I recognize that the point of using the word tolerace is supposed to mean that you let others live their lives. Tolerance doesn’t encompass quietly “tolerating” your own rights being stripped away by a more powerful majority.

    And has anyone else noticed that you rarely ever hear liberals use the word “tolerance” — and instead it seems like it’s something conservatives say we say a lot?

  3. February 21, 2006 at 1:43 pm

    If you can excuse the shameless self-promotion, the UConn Free Press ran an article about the violence and repression of tolerance. Tolerance as Violence

  4. prefer not to say
    February 21, 2006 at 5:22 pm

    It seems like what we want to be striving for is “civility” not tolerance. Because tolerance implies that a position on abortion is like putting up with your neighbor’s bad landscaping choices, rather than an issue of life and death for both sides of the debate. The trick is to we violently disagree about things that matter intimately to us, using an agreed upon set of rules for the exchange. That’s civility — not tolerance.

  5. February 21, 2006 at 5:25 pm

    But civility is just a tool for the power structure to keep down the oppressed, man!

  6. zuzu
    February 21, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    Funny you should mention “civility” — that’s another thing that right-wingers always trot out when liberals get too noisy.

  7. Anne
    February 21, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    zuzu: Don’t forget charges of “lowering the discourse” when their own tactics are used against them.

    And has anyone else noticed that you rarely ever hear liberals use the word “tolerance” — and instead it seems like it’s something conservatives say we say a lot?

    Yeah, like with “politically correct.” Or rather, I only hear conservatives using the term “politically correct” these days, period.

  8. February 22, 2006 at 11:48 am

    And “who sets the tone?”

  9. February 23, 2006 at 3:01 pm

    This is one of those “gifts” that keeps on giving; I blogged along similar lines about a year ago. My point then (and still is now) is that what liberals and progressives really espouse is being open-minded – that you approach difference with a willingness to assess others and yourself with an equally critical eye. Sometimes you have to accept that your prejudices were wrong and thus you should lay off; other times, closer scrutiny confirms that a given behavior or set of attitudes is more destructive than not.

    Tolerance, or intolerance, is about knee-jerk, blanket assumptions; keeping an open mind is about weighing and judging after careful thought.

    I’m open-minded; this is not the same as turning a blind every damn thing under the sun in the mistaken adherence to a norm of “tolerance” imposed upon liberals – a norm that supposedly only applies to us.

  10. February 23, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    oop. That should be “turning a blind eye to every damn thing under the sun”

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