Equality is a defining concern of our age. If there’s one thing people today never tire of saying, it is that everyone should be treated equally, and not just in the old fashioned sense that people deserve equal courtesy and respect. Today’s demands include equalizing disparate incomes, and giving all couples (or “throuples” or whatever) equal legal status under marriage laws. Equality is a big deal.
Meanwhile, one of our culture’s cardinal sins is intolerance, which is loosely defined today as non-acceptance in some form or another. This definition is diluted in the way that popular culture specializes in watering things down.
The Meaning of Tolerance
The true meaning of tolerance is not agreement, personal acceptance, or celebration of a particular way of thinking or acting. It is merely putting up with it. It is letting it exist or continue despite my disagreement.
In the following paragraphs, to be consistent and avoid confusion, I will be using the word “tolerance” to refer to the relatively new and contemporary understanding of the word, which, again, means to agree with and/or affirm another’s view or behavior.
A Problem We Must Address
This brings us to a concern that cannot continue to be ignored. I am speaking of the problem of intolerance inequality. We know that intolerance is bad, and we know that we all do it sometimes. We all fail to agree with someone’s point of view; we all fall short of giving support and endorsement to certain of people’s choices; we all, at times, withhold our affirmation or celebration of the sexual or spiritual identities of those around us when they declare them.
In this way we are all equally human. After all, who can be tolerant 100% of the time? But, in the interest of full equality, all human beings deserve the dignity of being judged intolerant on those occasions. In other words, the circumstances of intolerance being the same, why should some—on the basis of nothing more than race, gender, or sexual preference—be denied equal treatment?
A Deeper Explanation of the Problem
The unequal treatment of people and groups, that our society must work to overcome, involves denying certain people or groups the opportunity to achieve certain labels, however negative they may be.
If we deem all persons fundamentally equal, then the same moral principles apply to all of us in equal measure. Expectations and punishments should be the same. To lower expectations or punishments on one group is to demean that group. By presuming that they “can’t help it” we’re implying that they’re unable to achieve the same standards or expectations as their peers. We’re holding them to a lower standard. It’s a patronizing insult to that group, a kind of “soft bigotry” as some have called it. On the basis of the fundamental equality of people, we should expect two adults of similar age and circumstances to be equally responsible and accountable to the same moral standards. This is completely irrespective of their ethnicity, gender or other distinguishing factors. Let intolerance be intolerance regardless.
Historical Examples of the Inequality of intolerance
The contemporary problem of intolerance inequality has parallels from history. Some slave-owners in the antebellum south had low expectations of their slaves. Thinking they were something like a race of neanderthals, they were not held to the same standard. If a slave killed a man, the slave-owner would not have seen the deed in the same moral light as if a white person killed a man. It was often the same with early Native Americans. Many considered them to be a primitive race of human beings, and thus easily prone to savagery. The ‘civilized’ people of European descent did not see the natives as equally morally accountable for their acts. How can they help it, after all, being what they are?
Before you are tempted to think that this is all in the past, come back now to the problem at hand. Listen to the way people address the murders committed by radical Muslims. I dare say you will hear echoes of the same way of thinking. We don’t expect any more of ‘those’ people. Why should we? There remains an idea that people are not equally accountable for their actions because they are not equal (or so it is implied) in some morally significant way.
Intolerance Inequality on Campus
Let’s look at a trend that exemplifies this problem. Recently, a lot of college and university campuses (like Tufts and Vanderbilt) have begun denying long-standing Christian organizations their status as organizations officially recognized by the university. This is because the organizations discriminate along lines of belief when it comes to their leadership. Intervarsity’s status was revoked from some two dozen campuses in the California State college system because they discriminate who their leaders are.
By today’s definition, they are being intolerant. However, the first question we must ask in this age of intolerance inequality is whether other groups are being treated equally. Does anyone believe that a campus Muslim organization would open any of its leadership positions to people who do not affirm that Mohammed was a prophet? Is there a Muslim student group on any campus in America open to a leadership candidate who agrees with gay marriage? So then, have all of the Muslim organizations had their charters revoked as well? Also, how would a campus LGBT organization feel about allowing a Westboro-style fundamentalist into its leadership? Will such groups be allowed the equal opportunity to be deemed intolerant? I find no stories about any other groups being denied their campus status.
We Can Change Things
By now stories like this should register very little surprise. We’ve all grown so used to intolerance inequality that we simply accept it. If a group of white kids were on camera beating up a black kid, this would easily be seen as racist in nature. But if it’s black kids beating up a white kid, our culture of inequality will deny those black kids equal treatment.
Unfortunately some are so tragically confused by this that they end up in a morass of silliness. Such was the case of the young person who replied to a recent question on debate.org. The question was whether Kanye West is racist. The first reply on the negative side was that he can’t be racist because he is black. This is intolerance inequality at its finest. Sorry, Kanye, it’s mostly a society of equal treatment and opportunity, but there are still a couple of labels that are very exclusive and simply not open to “your kind.”
Inequality rears its ugly head in strange ways today. Once upon a time a black citizen might have been told where he or she can’t sit. Now he or she can’t be racist. When it comes to joining the country club of the intolerant, the pc police have posted a big “Whites Only” sign.
And it’s not just a matter of race. Gays are on the outside looking in as well. A straight white man can earn his intolerance badge with such ease that it is almost like he’s cheating. By contrast, let a Hispanic lesbian try her hardest to earn that same badge and she will find herself slamming into an intolerance glass ceiling. The same people who preach tolerance the loudest, will stubbornly deny her equal treatment.
My fellow Americans, we’ve come too far for this kind of inequality to remain with us. Let us no longer privilege straight white males by giving them a free pass to intolerance. Make them earn the label like everyone else, and remove the barriers of bigotry that have kept certain minority groups from the equal right and opportunity that would allow their intolerance to earn the recognition that is due them.