Anyone who pays remote attention to politics or even campus life will be well familiar with the popular and widely accepted value of tolerance. Calls for religious tolerance, political tolerance and social tolerance echo throughout society. For instance, in a 9/11 speech last September, President Barack Obama called for America to “stay true to our traditions here at home as a diverse and tolerant nation.” We’re told that in order to have a pluralistic society or a functioning democracy, it is necessary to respect all different beliefs in word and deed. Those who speak out against any movement purporting to promote tolerance are denounced and vilified as hateful, bigoted, racist or extremist.
This all sounds terribly appealing, yet something is amiss. Indeed, the way tolerance is defined and pursued in modern American society is both structurally and pragmatically flawed. Were we to use the word “tolerance” outside of the social context, we would probably mean it in reference to something to be put up with. But in the modern social sense, tolerance is often paired with terms such as respect and acceptance, implying affirmation and the assumption that all views should be considered equally valid. However, this view of tolerance is self-contradictory.
The argument is very simple: tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance, thus contradicting its very basis. As a recent example, Chick-Fil-A, a fast food chain based in the South, has recently found itself the target of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) community after an outlet in Pennsylvania agreed to provide sandwiches and brownies to a marriage conference hosted by the Pennsylvania Family Institute. The stated mission of PFI is to “strengthen families by restoring to public life the traditional, foundational principles and values essential for the well-being of society.”
In response, the University of Indiana temporarily barred the restaurant from serving food on its campus. Also, in one of the more mild rebukes circulating online, Michael Jones of Change.org called for citizens to “let the restaurant know that if they value all of their customers, including their LGBT customers and straight allies, they’ll pull their official sponsorship from this event and stop making chicken sandwiches that support extremely homophobic agendas.”
Considering that the LGBT community tends to fiercely advocate for a more tolerant society, the severe reaction to one Chick-Fil-A outlet’s very mild gesture seems rather intolerant.
Indeed, society cannot function on the premise that all beliefs are equally valid. It is self-evident that people’s beliefs simply do not get along. Furthermore, people’s actions and words are determined largely by what they believe. Consequently, if our society seeks to uphold traditional American values such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech, then a certain degree of speech and advocacy will necessarily exist that is intolerant of certain beliefs, practices and ideas. In essence, upholding these values leads to intolerance, as currently perceived. If you believe that all views are equally valid, then this is a problem.
Tolerance, however, should not be the end goal that we are striving for individually, as a campus or as a nation. The question is not whether all beliefs are equally valid, but rather which beliefs are valid. One of the reasons America’s founders included these liberties in the Bill of Rights was so there might be an environment where ideas could be freely exchanged, examined and debated. This was not done because it would insure a tolerant and accepting society, but so truth could be best discovered, and truth, by its very nature, is intolerant.
I’m not arguing that being tolerant, in the sense of being civil, is wrong. In fact, civility allows the free marketplace of ideas to function all that much better in sorting true beliefs from false ones. But this civility should be done in subservience to a pursuit of truth, not for the sake of being tolerant. While respecting individuals is necessary, respecting and celebrating their beliefs is not.