Sunday, February 27, 2005

Tolerance and the Erosion of Society

What do we mean when we say 'tolerance'? We use the word all the time, especially in regards to 'diverse communities'. I believe that 'tolerance', at least in today's circumstances, does not mean what we think it does.

The idea of tolerance was originally devised to keep various Christian sects from fighting each other, as a way of preseving society in the face of religious strife. John Locke wrote in 'A Letter Concerning Toleration,' "I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church." The Letter was a profoundly religious document. The idea, crudely put, was that members of the various Christian sects would argee not to fight each other over their doctrinal differences in the interest of society at large. Despite their sectarian disputes the members of these sects still shared a sense of a larger civil society. They shared the same broad Christian heritage, the same European and national history, the same language. Tolerance existed inside a larger cultural framework of historical, religious and historical meaning. 'Tolerance' was an idea that supported society as a whole.

Today though 'tolerance' has lost that meaning. How so? First, 'tolerance' is no longer tolerance as such because nothing is intolerable. I mean that literally. Nothing, no behaviour, no symbol, no speech, is deemed intolerable by what we laughably call our standards. "Wait," you say, "of course some things are intolerable. Child molesting, for example." No, child molesting and other such henious behaviors, rape, arson, etc, are illegal. They are outside the discourse of tolerance by the nature of their illegality. I ask, what legal behavior is considered intolerable in the public square?

More than that though, even if some individual found something intolerable, at say the mall or an airport, what methods are recognized for expressing intolerance? None. The only thing intolerable, to paraphrase Madonna, is intolerance itself.

What we mean by 'tolerance' today is really 'mutual indifference' or more accurately 'mutual indifference to legal behavior.' We simple don't care or at least act as if we don't care how other people behave, the speech they use or the symbols they display, so long as it at least appears to be legal.

Tolerance is supposed to be the lubricant of that paragon of civic virtue, the diverse community. Yet by definition members of a community must share something in common and the community itself must have limits so that some are excluded. However this is not the case. None are excluded. All are welcome. The virtues of tolerance and diversity have trumpted those of community.

Go to a mall in a big city. Walk around and watch people for an hour. Diversity and tolerance as mutual indiffernce are on display at every turn. If you don't think and let yourself be drawn into the regime of enforced frivolity you'll come away impressed at the achievements of the diverse society. However, you'll be wrong. Look again at the mallgoers. What do they share? Language? No. Many of them do not speak English, many others do not write it, even more do not read beyond a mere functional capacity. The others don't share one single language in common. Nationality? No, again. Many are not American citizens. Some are here illegally. Religion? Give me a break. Even those who are nominally Christian are largely ignorant of the tradition. History, culture, or (getting desperate now) values? Please. No, the only thing these people have truly in common is commerce. They all spend US dollars. But this is not a community much less a society. This is merely a marketplace.

Which brings me back to mutual indifference. Why have we allowed 'tolerance' to devolve into mutual indifference? I think there are three factors.

One - market forces tend to search for the largest possible pool of consumers regardless of other factors. If there were enough Nazis in America with enough purchasing power Hallmark would issue a Hitler's birthday card for their celebrations. The marketplace would try to water-down the holiday by replacing its symbols with something bland and unlikely to give offense as has happened with Christian holidays, Snowmen and Bunnies domesticating Christmas and Easter. (Perhaps a friendly cartoon bat for Hilter's Birthday, maybe known as Reich Day or Aryan Day.) One consumer's money is as good as the next's. Merchants don't care if the buyer is an illegal alien or a 12-year-old girl wearing a t-shirt that says "Slut" or an Islamist in a full beard and robes.

Two - we lack a common reference point to determine what is intolerable. Since we no longer live in a society but rather in a number of unrelated societies residing inside an indifferent economic structure we have lost any way of declaring that certain behaviors, speech or symbols are inappropriate, intolerable or simply wrong. In the past one could appeal to religion or civic virtue to shame fellow citizens into adopting acceptable behavior. Today that is impossible. One individual may protest the actions of another individual but unless they happen to share some common norm (which is increasingly unlikely) they will simply disagree and that's that. "Who are you to tell me how to live, asshole?" is the common way to put this.

Three - a widespread attitude that combines fear of conflict with resignation with a misguided "live-and-let-live" attitude. "I won't tell others how to live and they won't tell me." Again, this is a indifference masquerading as tolerance.

In the name of human freedom we have abandoned all constraints on behavior and expression except the legal ones. Arguments referring to morality or even politeness have lost the power to persuade or shame because we no longer share definitions of morality with our fellow shoppers. Some view wearing fur as a sin and see homosexuality as acceptable. Others believe the opposite. But these are presented as merely opinions without the force of a larger, common tradition or comtext. Whom is to say who is right? We can all agree that the mall closes at ten so let's leave each other alone and get in line behind the guy wearing this t-shirt. You may be offended but isn't that really your problem? He has a right to express himself.

We have then has played an ironic trick on ourselves. Tolerance was originally an idea used to support a society whose members shared much in common. Today it is an idea that has been part of the erosion of society. Mutual indifference is the perfect value to support the smooth functioning of the marketplace, whose shoppers share little or nothing in common. We tolerate anyone except those who are actively trying to kill us. Even then we tolerate people who share their ideas and propagate their symbols.
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