Prejudice, judgment and the myth of tolerance


The electoral season has pushed issues like the ground-zero mosque, homosexuality, the race of our president, liberalism, and conservativism to the front lines of daily news. For those on the right end of the political spectrum, the president’s race has nothing to do with their dislike of his policies and they resent being told they are racists when they exercise their right to dissent. They resent being called “homophobic” if they voice a negative opinion of homosexuality and they resent being called “Islamophobic” because they perceive the mosque at ground zero as an affront to those who died on 9/11. Those on the left despise how easily homophobic, racist, or Islamophobic people can claim to be open-minded while hiding their true feelings behind seemingly logical arguments.

Words like “radical” and “extreme” are freely tossed about by both sides. These highly subjective words simply mean “more to the left/right than me.” Everyone likes to see themselves as moderate and mainstream, yet we can’t all be mainstream.

There are certainly those on the right who are bigoted, but who don’t recognize their bigotry. We have a long way to go as a country to truly be tolerant of those who are different from ourselves. Racism, homophobia, and so forth are alive and well – just not as easy to see as it was in the 1950’s and before. I agree with one scholar who writes, “The most insidious form of racism is covert racism.”

On the other hand, those on the left delude themselves into thinking they are the opened-minded, tolerant ones. To express disdain for intolerant people is itself intolerant. Or to recognize people as judgmental is itself judgmental.

Nearly every school attempts to teach tolerance to our children. Even though that is my job as a parent, I laud that effort because I know it isn’t always being taught at home. The problem is the ridiculous belief that we can somehow get to the point as a culture where we don’t make judgments or have any biases. We do and we always will. These very same schools teach children the importance of avoiding the “wrong group” of friends. Isn’t this judgmental and intolerant?

Current event examples of these contradictions are glaring. For example, on gay marriage those who argue that no one has the right to deny someone the right to marry whomever he/she wants are denying the obvious. Of course we can deny people the right to marry. Do we allow children to marry? Do we allow three people to marry each other? Do we allow children to marry adults? Some advocates of gay marriage would call these questions ridiculous. Yet if we are supposed to be tolerant, who gets to determine what is ridiculous?

On race, those who argue that they don’t care that Barack Obama is black are deceiving themselves. Of course they notice it and of course it matters. That does not mean they are automatically bigoted, but to pretend Hillary Clinton’s sex is irrelevant or that Barack Obama’s race is irrelevant is absurd. Some of my Caucasian friends try to convince me they are color blind. Are you kidding? Are you trying to say that you don’t notice that I’m white?
What they mean is that they don’t want to let color or sex stand in their way of accepting people for who they are. That is noble, yet in the pursuit of nobility we are pursuing a myth.

Culturally, we simply shift the political correctness of the groups against which we can make judgments. Right now it is unacceptable to have biased opinions of people based on skin color, thank goodness. However, it is acceptable to have biased opinions of conservatives or religious people (unless they are Muslim).

The real question is not one of making judgments or intolerance. Instead the question is “on what basis do we make our judgments, the fairness or equality of those judgments, and how those judgments affect ourselves, others, and our culture at large.”

I’m not suggesting that we accept bigotry, sexism, or racism. On the contrary, I think we need to work harder at recognizing it for what it is and confront our own weaknesses in these areas where they exist. However, to pretend that we can be totally tolerant of everyone and everything is setting a standard that not only is unachievable, but it is unhealthy. We want our children to make judgments about their religion, peer-groups, political positions, and stance on social issues. They cannot be “tolerant and non-judgmental” at the same time they are supposed to make good choices based on the values we want them to adopt.