Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tolerance Is Not A Virtue

Let me be clear at the outset: when I say that tolerance is not a virtue, I'm saying that as a philosopher for whom virtue has a conceptually substantive meaning.  I do not mean to imply that tolerance is a vice, a claim to which I think no reasonable moral agent, and no philosopher worth his or her salt, would concede.  Rather, I only want to point out that being tolerant requires, at most, nothing more than refraining from being vicious.  And I don't think anyone deserves moral credit for refraining from being vicious.

There are, of course, many good reasons to encourage our fellow citizens and moral agents to be tolerant, not the least of which is that ignorance and prejudice, to which we are all susceptible, incline even the best of us toward vicious behavior.  In the unfortunate cases where ignorance and prejudice cannot be corrected or eliminated, we ought to try at least to de-fang them, ameliorate their effects, soften the severity of their blows.  I take the value of "tolerance" training to be a kind of propaedeutic, a disarmament strategy, an effort to achieve the least-worst state of affairs, or something like what we philosophers would consider a sort of intro-level course in being a moral agent.  Lesson One of such course: if you want to be virtuous, you first have to stop acting like an a-hole.

Lesson Two: you don't get any moral credit for not being an a-hole.

For a number of accidental reasons, this particular issue-- what I might call the "hyperinflation" of the value of tolerance-- has been brought to the fore in my experience over the course of the last several months.  Some of this has to do with the fact that "marriage" has been situated culturally, morally and politically as THE issue around which one demonstrates how liberal or progressive (culturally, morally and politically) one is with regard to LGBT issues and folk. I'll leave for another day why I think this is a grossly deficient frame of reference for such determinations, and instead focus on an unfortunate consequence of that sort of framing: namely, the proliferation of a category of behaviors by self-identified allies who subtly (and probably unintentionally) vacate the meaning of the word "ally" of any real positive or progressive moral/political sense.

Now, I don't want to pick on allies any more than I want to pick on tolerant people.  That's not because I think allies (exemplars of tolerance, in many ways) exhibit some virtue that is beyond reproach, but rather because I think allies (some of them, not all of them, but more and more of them) don't exhibit any kind of "virtue" in their alliance at all.  They don't deserve opprobrium for their tolerance, to be sure, but neither do they deserve praise.  They're not being vicious, thankfully, but they're not being virtuous, either.  Increasingly, what it means to be an ally is to have taken on a moral disposition that is fundamentally (and much too proudly) tolerant, that is to say, neutral. There was a time when "ally" was the antonym of "opponent" and the synonym of "advocate," but more and more it appears that being an ally requires little more than a disavowal of the advocate/opponent dichotomy.  If it requires anything at all, it requires only a sort of "fine by me" indifference. 

Last month, on "National Coming Out Day," a group of students and faculty at my College (mostly "allies") wore t-shirts that read "LGBT? fine by me."  The photo at the top of this post is the one the College proudly circulated on its website and in social media.  (For what it's worth, the "fine by me" catchphrase is not the creation of our local GSA group; it's a trademark logo created by the Atticus Circle, which actually is an "advocacy" group.)  For what are maybe obvious reasons, I was asked personally by some of my students/colleagues to purchase and wear the t-shirt on National Coming Out Day and to participate in the photo shoot.  I opted not to do so.  At the time, I made some flippant remark about how "LGBT? fine by me" must have just barely won out over "Diversity? whatevs" in the let's-find-a-completely-vacuous-statement-for-a-tshirt-logo contest, but the truth is that my non-participation was a tough decision for me.  Part of that is because I worried that non-participation would be seen as non-advocacy of LGBT rights and concerns, which are very important to me for many and varied reasons, but also because, if I'm being totally honest, I had also been lulled into a kind of moral/political sleep by the enchanting "tolerance is a virtue" lullaby.  I had to stop and really think about whether or not "fine by me" was something I wanted to declare on a tshirt, on my body, as a person, a citizen and a moral agent.   

Why not wear the shirt?, I thought to myself.  I mean, it's not perfect but it's something, right?

In the end, I decided that it's really not something positive or progressive, and it may even be counter-productive.  It is, at best, nothing.  It says nothing, declares nothing and represents nothing, or nothing more than "I am not an a-hole" (which, in my view, is not something that needs to be announced or ought to be congratulated for declaring). I am, of course, glad that more and more people are finding ways to be more and more tolerant of difference. I genuinely do believe that makes the world a less vicious (even if not more virtuous) place... but I would much prefer that we continue to insist upon the distinction between advocate, opponent and "ally."  If tolerance is all that is required of allies, if "fine by me" is the most substantive declarative statement that allies can make about themselves, then we need to stop congratulating them on the deployment of their moral agency. 

[An aside: when my students asked me, as many of them did, why I wasn't wearing the "LGBT? fine by me" shirt that day, I asked them whether or not they would wear a shirt that said "Black? fine by me" or "Disabled? fine my me" or "Female? fine by me" or "Poor? fine by me."  Not surprisingly, none of them would have.  The fact that they couldn't, or wouldn't, critically consider the similarities between those shirts and the LGBT shirt is what is most disturbing to me.]

I say: be an advocate or an opponent.  Or, if not one or the other, then concede that things on which you cannot take a position do not matter to you enough to warrant praise or blame.  But please oh please don't think that being tolerant is being virtuous.  It's not even properly being an "ally."  Allies should be advocates, not merely non-opponents.  And advocate-allies should oppose "fine by me" as a declaration of their advocacy and their moral agency.

Even Bartleby did more than that.

UPDATE 11/21/13: 
I'm supplementing this post with an addendum as a result of my College's recent release of its version of the "It Gets Better" video, a campaign started by Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller several years ago in response to a spate of LGBT teen suicides.  Here is the Rhodes College video:

First, let me say that I'm very glad that the College got around to making this video. (Fwiw, ALMOST FOUR YEARS AFTER THE "IT GETS BETTER" CAMPAIGN BEGAN and more than a year since Dan Savage visited Rhodes, but whatevs.)  That notwithstanding, I see confirmed in it the unfortunate and critically-blind attitude toward LGBTQ advocacy that my post above about allies meant to illuminate. Being an advocate requires, or ought to require, much more than what this video accomplishes.  And soooo much of what it doesn't accomplish

Who does it "get better" for at Rhodes?  From the video, it appears, not gay men (who are not already tenured faculty or administrators), not people of color (or only ONE in the video), not trans-identifying people (AT ALL), and not even lesbian or bisexual woman with any sort of job-security (i.e., tenure).  In fact, assuming this video is primarily directed at students, prospective students, faculty or prospective faculty, it only (possibly, maybe, assuming they stay) "gets better" at Rhodes for WHITE WOMEN.  C'mon. now.

I'll say again, for the record, I'm glad that Rhodes took the time to make this video.  I genuinely do congratulate the people who made the effort to participate in it, many of whom are friends of mine and who cannot and should not be blamed for the gross oversights that this video makes blindingly apparent.  And/yet/but (as Derrida was fond of saying), let's not make the mistake of eliding tolerance and advocacy.  Just because I'm not hurting you doesn't mean I'm helping you.

Sometimes "mere" tolerance is not only not a virtue, but also a vice, especially when it clouds one's ability to see how self-congratulation for one's merely tolerant behavior impedes one's ability to critically and honestly assess the problem at hand.


David Robertson said...

The core problem I think the author intends to make isn’t more so on whether or not tolerance should not be praised, but rather the main focus is to prove that tolerance is the go-to term used in debates between what is virtuous versus non-vicious. The author is discrediting those who have been held in high regard for being considered tolerant when in fact; all they did was the opposite of what was problematic in the first place. Tolerance, as presented in this argument, is a tool used to make bystanders of oppression basically choose sides. In turn, what this does is counterproductive to what the essence of tolerance is all about. It further divides what would already be separating two different factions. Tolerance is not an obsolete or pointless concept in my opinion. What it does is lay down the foundation to where the problem can begin to be solved. It isn’t a finalizing process to get to the solution and that is where I will side with the author. But if tolerance or its principles happened to be removed as a resolution to conflict, then there would be misunderstanding which breeds fear which turns into anguish and carries on until both sides cannot bear to comprehend, cope with or come to a consensus with one another. Tolerance should not be a tool of self-gratification or viewed as such. Tolerance is a broad, conceptual ideology that stands at the foregrounds of getting the masses in society to join into an alliance. Tolerance is more so a tool for progression and not a unimportant factor in deciding which side to choose.

derrell ffrazier said...

Honestly when it comes to tolerance I believe some people become to comfortable with just settling for a problem or issue. When it comes to speaking up and expressing there opinion, they are quiet. I think more people need not to be afraid of expressing how they feel about certain topics and discussions. We are a country that allow people freedom of speech and religion. I completely understand what the blogger is stating and I agree. People are to lazy when it comes to creative thinking, expressing themselves or anything in that nature. If nobody speaks up and express what they think how can problems be solved or even be addressed. you rather settle for something you don't believe in or you rather speak up about it and change the situation.