Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Intolerable Tolerance

I can't remember where I first heard the word tolerance, but it played a big role in my childhood.

  I know that after about age 7 or 8, I  used it in describing the atmosphere  I was suffering in in school:  if they weren't making fun of me, pushing me, or laughing at me, I thought the kids in my class must just be "tolerating" me.  Trying to not get in trouble by being polite and getting away from me as soon as they could.  (For a time, even kids who were nice to me caught hell for associating with me.)

Such a situation continued for me until I was a junior in high school.  I was walking down the hall, and some boys were yelling something at me and laughing.  I couldn't tell what they were saying, didn't want to know; but they weren't singing me a serenade.  I turned around and yelled, "F**ck off!"

So the word "tolerate" in all its forms has never held a positive connotation for me.  "Tolerating" seems like the opposite to me of respecting other human beings as I respect myself, since we are all created that way.  "Tolerating" was always the word I used to ignore dad breaking the china set he got my mom at Christmas by throwing it at the wall the next day because she accidentally dropped a piece by accident, or that my aunt was living with us because her mentally ill husband had been doing things like holding a loaded gun to her head.  I never used it to refer to how human beings should act, or how I thought they should.

.  When I first heard that term "political correctness", some twenty years or so after that, I laughed.  Surely that was being used to lampoon people who could not abide folks with different views than they.  The fact that people used that term seriously to critique the actions of someone of which they disapproved was amazing to me.  But it didn't confuse me as much as the parallel use of "tolerance" did.

If I remember correctly, "being tolerant" came into popularity as a statement of virtue during the AIDS crisis, and the gay rights movement.  By this time, I considered myself very well educated about peoples' varying sexual proclivities; I belonged to a religion that proscribed me from acting out a gay lifestyle, but that didn't give me any right to criticize or judge those who did any more than eating kosher gives Jewish people the right to judge my eating bacon.  Nor do I worry very much about Jewish people being kosher or even if there are Jews who do go around telling non-Jews, "How dare you eat that meat with cheese?"  If there are, I would find it amusing but I don't particularly care what they think.

But it turns out that there are a lot of people who do care what other people think, and want to make sure it's nothing critical about them.  And instead of society recognizing this paranoia as a problem, we are starting to institutionalize it.  This began by a call for "tolerance."

I found this puzzling for two reasons.  First of all, as I have explained above, "tolerance" is a horrible way to treat others.  It says, "I don't like you, but I'm going to pinch my nose and stand being around you, because that will make me a more righteous person, "  or "I'm not going to tell you to your face that your beliefs and behavior are disgusting, I"m just going to shut up and keep my opinions to myself."  It is often accompanied by smirks, lack of attention, and silence as people pray silently for their time having to breathe the same air as the tolerated one to end soon.  Now.  It usually communicates all those things by body language, by the lack of communication with the tolerated, as people avoid them and laugh and talk joyously with others, leaving Mr. Tolerable in the corner by himself, feeling an awkwardness that defies description.

The second reason I was puzzled at first, then annoyed, at the overuse of the word "tolerance" as a supposed bastion of good will, was that the people using it the most seemed to have no understanding of the mindset of the people they were criticizing for not being "tolerant."

A typical article or speech would go something like this:  "Gay men and women are frustrated by the barriers they still face in the church.  The message of [put in name of gay spokesperson or group here] is, "We need for them to start practicing 'tolerance'".   Or "Because Joe suffered a lot during his school years by being bullied, he believes 'tolerance' is an important value to instill in schoolchildren today. He hopes the Our Lady of Compassion school administrators will agree."

Such a position has to assume a world of evil in the mind of the people he wants to convert to "tolerance", because he certainly thinks that they think less of the supposed victim.  It has to assume the targeted audience is either pretending that gay people or fat people or people who like cabbage don't exist because they don't want them to, or that the targeted audience hates the victims so much that they don't even want to do that.  Not for them the turning up of the nose and crossing their legs toward someone else in the room; bring out the tar and feathers!  Let's not less this awful excuse for a human being get out of here alive!  Let's make sure they can't ruin anyone else's day by their presence!

Such a position also betrays a degree of personalization of criticism that is hard to imagine.  It says, "I can't bear the thought that you might think I'm doing something wrong, or something that's sinful, or something that will damage my children.  In order to maintain my sense of self worth, I need for you to agree with everything I think!"  Or perhaps just "I know you won't ever agree with everything I think, but I want you to pretend to."  And there is a hint of, "If you're not judging me and not even bringing it up with me, but I find out you think I'm doing something wrong, that will destroy me!"

Christians, that is Christian fundamentalists with a small "f" who take the Bible as God's word and try to keep to its tenets, do believe that there is only one way to what Jesus referred to as paradise.  And it has nothing to do with any part of our being, and nothing to do with anything we do.  We don't get there by tithing, or feeding the hungry and healing the sick, by eschewing pork, or a gay lifestyle, or obeying the 10 commandments.  Those things may or may not be good to do, but even if they are all Biblical, doing them won't earn us any brownie points.

By being "born again", Jesus meant that we had to change fundamentally, and that through him is the only way to do it. Correct or not, we believe that.  It's Christianity centrifuged down to the last layer, minus any Church-ese and good deeds and rituals.

And I don't believe that I"m hurting you by holding that opinion.

But if you're curious, my attitude towards those whose actions the Bible tells me is sin is about like my attitude toward myself:  I'm a sinner, I'm prone to sin; I"m probably doing something God doesn't like without repenting, just like when I was sexually active and making excuses to God for that.  Maybe you are too.  But I don't really think about that much.  I"m an evangelist, but not the kind that will pressure you unrelentingly to believe as I believe.  I may invite you to church, or to an event; I may even offer you a Bible so you can check it out.  But preaching is not a talent of mine, so if you want to be preached to, you should get another evangelical friend.

Maybe you live a gay lifestyle.  Maybe you have a relationship outside the bounds of marriage, maybe a child.  Maybe you smoke.  Maybe you use illegal drugs. I don't are about that any more than I care about my own difficulty getting my eating under control, my speeding, my swearing, my forgetting to say grace.  Yes, if you pin me down, I do believe all those things result from sin.  But it doesn't make any sense for us to measure sins by degrees.  That's like trying to find the prettiest flower by looking at a garden a quarter of a mile away.  As far as God is concerned, we are so far from the holiness to be near him that he sees us all with the same degree of sinfulness.  And someone with just a pinch of it can't get any closer to him than Charles Manson, without someone intervening for him or her.

I have said before that I think of God like a giant nuclear reactor.  Something capable of goodness and purity, but also something that can destroy on a scale we do not understand.  You can get right next to the goodness only if you wear a very special suit that makes you holy in God's eyes.  And if you want one of the suits, it's free, but you have to get in good with the guy handing out all the suits..

I've kind of drifted from tolerance, but if you are different from me, I will not tolerate you.  I will love you, whether you like it or not.  That's not saying I'll choose to spend a lot of time with you; there are certain personalities that aren't good for me, and the same is probably true for you.  But I won't see you as underneath me, someone to be scorned or hated.   That you might think so little of me that you need to "raise" me to the level of tolerating you is, to me, very sad.  

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