Tolerating Intolerance Will Not Be Tolerated Here
Breaking out of the rhetorical Fool's Mate of bigotry
An essay by Dave Van Domelen, copyright 2013, addendum 2017.
It happens with depressing regularity. A bigot is called on their actions or
statements, then turns around and says something like, "If you're so tolerant
and stuff, why can't you tolerate my opinions? HA! You're worse than me,
because you're not just intolerant, you're a hypocrite!" Commence sputtering
non-bigots and smug bigot.|
Rhetorically, this is a combination of two things that are inimical to
reasoned debate...essentially, the "you're intolerant of my intolerance"
argument is cheating. There's a whole host of logical
fallacies that let someone "win" an argument by presenting something that
can't be refuted simply because it's outside the rules of refutation. But
the "you have to tolerate my intolerance" argument focuses on one of two
fallacies, depending on how honest the arguer is: binary thinking and
Human thinking is very vulnerable to this trap. It's the honest belief that
for any particular position, there's only two sides. Yes or no, up or down,
black or white...no middle ground. If you're not exactly like me, you're
completely opposite. Our language is even structured to support this,
there's no graceful way to imply a middle ground most of the time. There's
synonyms and antonyms, no sorta-nyms. While we do have middle words for some
things (maybe, level, gray, to use the examples earlier), for far too many
concepts there's no single word that clearly conveys the idea of being
somewhat (fill in the blank). Additionally, use of mitigating adjectives and
adverbs has its own trap, implying that beliefs aren't strongly held.
("You're only somewhat tolerant? Then why do you care what I do or say?")
Specifically, the idea here is that the person admits to being intolerant,
but honestly believes that if you're not intolerant as well, you must by
definition be willing to accept everything. So if you object to
anything at all, you're not a tolerant person, and must be intolerant.
Philosophical positions like tolerance are a horrible fit for this
linguistically-reinforced mindset, because in truth no one is 100%
intolerant, and the only people who will put up with everything are
dead or in a coma. But since our tendency towards binary thinking shapes our
use of language, complex ideas like tolerance will be pegged so that either
the term or its antonym is linked to an unrealistic extreme, while the other
word is left realistic.
So, in our society, "tolerance" is usually accepted to mean being willing to
put up with anything and everything, but you can be "intolerant" so long as
you draw any lines in the sand that you will not cross or allow to be
crossed. Even people who are trying to be more tolerant of others fall into
the trap of accepting this impossible-to-meet definition, and are thus easily
guilt-tripped when their own lack of perfection is pointed out.
If binary thinking is an honest problem, false dichotomies are their evil
twin. With a false dichotomy, the person advancing the argument may be aware
of gray areas, but deliberately frames the debate so that it is binary,
making sure to put the opponent's side in as poor a light as possible. They
seek out any possible way to "prove" that their opponent is actually on their
side of the arbitrary dividing line, and therefore a hypocrite in addition to
being on the wrong side of the argument.
While a binary thinker might be trying to convince an opponent that they're
really in agreement (and that they're right), using a false dichotomy is
almost always just a smokescreen to deflect the discussion and play to the
crowd. They want their opponent to sputter uselessly and let them get away
with whatever it was they were doing. Because binary thinking is hard to
break out of, this usually works.
Nuance Doesn't Sell|
Whether the bigot is honestly engaging in binary thinking, or dishonestly
using false dichotomies as a distraction, the fact is that dualistic
arguments tend to be simple and make good sound bites. Nuance takes too long
to explain, doesn't fit on a button or bumper sticker, and to be honest most
people aren't ready to make a nuanced argument to defend an intuitively-held
position like "racism/sexism/etc. is bad." Binary thinking leads to lots of
great slogans and snappy comebacks, nuance not so much.
What, then to do? As the great slogan goes, those who don't stand for
something will fall for anything. Tolerance is a principle worth defending,
but it's not one that should be followed to its extreme "tolerate anything"
level. But saying that you stop short of tolerating intolerance just opens
you up to a response like, "Listen to yourself! That doesn't make any
Instead, point out that your tolerance has limits, and you don't tolerate
jerks (or whatever stronger term you feel is appropriate to the venue, such
as one ending in -hole or -head or -for-brains). "My doctor says I'm
lack-wit intolerant." Then suggest that if they were less intolerant, maybe
you could tolerate them.
This essay has mostly concentrated on rhetorical matters, but the events of
2017 made it important to more closely consider what is meant by tolerance
itself, rather than just identifying rhetorical cheating.
Tolerance is a compromise. Tolerance is people holding onto disagreements
and dislikes, but either tacitly or explicitly agreeing to limit how they act
upon those opinions. It's an ongoing negotiation which need not change
anyone's beliefs, but which can still do so over time...tolerance can become
acceptance and even agreement. But it is only necessary that everyone
bargain in good faith.
Those who refuse to bargain in good faith, or who simply refuse to compromise
at all, may still benefit from the compromise that is struck...but they are
owed nothing. You don't have to tolerate someone who isn't going to
accept the terms of the compromise, they are opting out of their own choice.
If you want something pithier than that: Tolerance is a peace treaty. "You
don't start anything, then I won't start anything." How tolerant you are is
measured by how bad the provocation must be before you decide the other
person has started something.
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