(Be warned that this is a long post, if that ain't yer thing.)
Discussions about gay marriage and other LGBT rights, as well as the recent Hobby Lobby decision with its issues of religious belief, have occasionally featured an argument that amounts to 'you're intolerant of intolerance.' Sometimes that argument appears verbatim, or almost so. For instance:
"I should be able to express moral views on social issues, especially those that have been the underpinning of Western civilization for 2,000 years — without being slandered, accused of hate speech, and told from those who preach 'tolerance' that I need to either bend my beliefs to their moral standards or be silent when I'm in the public square."
– Kirk Cameron in 2012
"But you're saying we need to tolerate the intolerant!" — I see that objection every time I write something critical of liberal dogmatism and bigotry.
To which my stock response is: Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying — because that's what liberalism is, or should be, all about. Toleration is perfectly compatible with — indeed, it presupposes — disagreement. That's why it's called tolerance and not endorsement or affirmation.
– Damon Linker in 2014
Although such arguments are often sincere, I'd contend they don't survive close scrutiny. John Holbo recently wrote a good post responding to Linker, and pieces earlier in the year from Henry Farrell, djw and Scott Lemieux (one and two) also cover the subject nicely. (The Cameron link above goes to a solid rebuttal by John Aravosis.) Here's another crack at the issue myself (cribbing from some older pieces), on the off-chance a different framework helps. Basically, I'm suggesting that the 'you're intolerant of intolerance' argument stems from a semantic disconnect, ignoring power dynamics and failing to distinguish between beliefs about personal conduct and beliefs about how the overall system should work. There's also confusion about a tolerant system (legal rights) versus public manners (social and cultural norms).
These issues have broader applications, but for the purposes of this post, I'm going to concentrate on gay rights and opposition to them, especially when that opposition is justified by citing religious beliefs. Meanwhile, Linker supports gay marriage himself, but views criticism of anti-gay social conservatives as "intolerant." For the purposes of readability, when I mention anti-gay social conservatives, I generally also mean defenders such as Linker (there will be some obvious exceptions), but the difference is duly noted.
Power Dynamics and Levels of Belief
A tolerant person says, "I will live my life the way I like, and you can live your life the way you like." An intolerant person will say, "I will live my life the way I like, but you must also live your life the way I want you to." These are not equivalent. Both people have beliefs, it's true, but one is seeking power over the other. This distinction is clearest in the private sphere. For instance, compare the viewpoint that whatever consenting adults choose to do in the bedroom is fine versus the notions that homosexuality should be criminalized or birth control should be outlawed. Power dynamics shouldn't be ignored, but in debates over "tolerance," they often are. We can visualize a tolerant society, with equal rights for all, like so:
(Click any image for a larger view. These groups aren't drawn to scale, of course, and most of the graphics in this post are pretty simple, but I hope they do the trick.)
Meanwhile, an intolerant society is hierarchical; one group can imposes its will on others (at least in some areas), and looks something like this:
A 2012 post offered a framework for discussing this further, and although it focused on claims about religious persecution, the same dynamics hold true for many arguments against gay marriage even when religion is not invoked, or really any issue involving some form of social conservatism or cultural dominance:
Most of the time, when conservatives say "freedom," they really mean "privilege." Typically, they do not recognize this, because they view their preferred power structure as the natural order. Theocrats and other religious authoritarians will raise a great hue and cry about their religious freedoms being violated. Most will honestly believe this, but they do not truly seek freedom of religion, which they already possess. What they seek is power and preferential status, the ability to impose their religious beliefs on others. Consequently, to use a shorthand, it's important to recognize the difference between personal beliefs – for instance, an individual's specific religious beliefs or lack thereof, that affect that person – and system beliefs – beliefs about how our overall system should be organized, including whether religious faiths (as well as no faith) should be treated equally and neutrally, or whether a particular faith or faiths should be given precedence. These are not equivalent, and when we discuss "belief" and "tolerance," we must put them in context. Individual, personal beliefs that affect that person primarily are categorically different from shared, public policies that affect everyone. The First Amendment contains both an exercise clause and an establishment clause regarding religion; theocrats consistently ignore the latter (in fact, that's one of the defining characteristic of theocrats). While the law makes a number of accommodations for religious beliefs (and individual communities may make far more), as a rule religious beliefs do not trump the law; a murderer could not successfully argue that prosecuting him was a violation of his First Amendment rights because he belonged to the Cult of Kali. Understanding these distinctions is crucial.
For a slightly silly example, "Vanilla ice cream is the best" and "Strawberry ice cream is the best" are both personal beliefs, and a fair system that's ice-cream-flavor neutral (as the Founding Fathers intended) treats them as equivalent. There are no legal repercussions for preferring one flavor over another, and people are free to argue about the best flavor. However, "Vanilla ice cream is the best, and all other flavors must be outlawed" is not equivalent to "Vanilla ice cream is the best" or "Strawberry ice cream is the best" – it's a system belief – and if it were allowed to dominate, would result in an unfair system. Likewise, to turn serious, "We should all have equal rights" and "You should be treated as a second-class citizen" are clearly not equivalent. Unfortunately, we keep on seeing arguments that they are, as well as arguments that objections to bigoted system beliefs are a form of intolerance.
Here's another way of visualizing the situation. Let's start with a basic setup:
For demonstrative purposes, let's say that Person B's intolerance is bigotry against gay people; he's a homophobe. Now let's add each person's desired influence:
In our example, everybody agrees on some issues and society considers them settled (murder should be illegal, etc.). But Person B doesn't just want to decide his own private conduct or to have a say in the public sphere; he wants to dictate what others do privately, too, even when it doesn't directly affect him. (Whether he obsesses about others' private conduct is his choice, but he has no automatic rights over them.) Although Person A and Person C both desire some basic influence in the public sphere, including shaping social and cultural norms – for instance, perhaps they don't want bigoted slurs shouted at a gay couple in a restaurant – they're not seeking to dominate Person B's private conduct. He's free to rail against gay people in his home. If he belongs to a house of worship that believes that homosexuality is morally wrong, he and his fellow congregants are free to inveigh against it there. He's also free to express his opinion in more public places that he shares with Persons A and C – but he doesn't have a right not to be criticized. Other people can exercise their own First Amendment rights and disagree, including calling him a bigot.
Continuing with the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause can be regarded as a system belief that trumps the Free Exercise Clause, which covers personal beliefs. This is as it must be, given that personal beliefs on religion (including atheism) sometimes clash. The system belief of fairness is what creates the space for different personal beliefs and mediates conflicts. Although reasonable accommodations for personal beliefs can be made (and are, in the U.S.), when there's a significant clash, the Establishment Clause should win (not that the courts always agree – ahem). The opposite system is theocracy, where the "Exercise" rights of one group supersede the rights of everybody else. For the sake of argument, let's suppose that the system of neutrality expressed by the Establishment Clause occasionally causes harm; it certainly makes some people upset. It's possible to acknowledge such incidents yet still note that it's the fairest system possible; the tradeoff is worth it. (For another example, thinking a specific defendant is "guilty" or "innocent" are personal beliefs, but "due process" is a system belief. Things don't turn out well when someone tries to do an end-run around it.)
Pushing for gay rights, including marriage and protection from getting fired for one's sexual orientation, isn’t about seeking elevated status, but mere equality. This is a crucial distinction. Yes, the push for gay rights makes social conservatives upset, and yes, it entails a change from decades ago. It is not, however, an assault on their freedom, which has not changed, only a diminishing of their privilege, which they took for granted. Cultural norms have shifted and no longer support what they view(ed) as the natural order. The same thing happened with slavery and women's suffrage and Jim Crow laws – things changed, and frankly, progressed. To quote another old post that can apply to bigotry or cultural narcissism in general, "of course people of faith have a role in the public square, they just shouldn't have a privileged role. They can propose public policies, but they don't automatically get to have their way by citing their religion. They don't automatically get to win."
Real Life and Real Harm
It's easy to discuss these issues as "a low-stakes cocktail party argument" (to borrow a phrase from Jamelle Bouie on discussions about racism). In some circles, the notion that gay people deserve fewer rights than everybody else may be stated, um, "politely." (We’ll come back to that.) Regardless, plenty of places exist in the U.S. and the world where that is not the case, and public, negative statements about gay people create a hostile environment. In some cases, these amount to threats, bullying, and precursors to violence. The CDC states that:
A 2009 survey* of more than 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students aged 13–21 years found that in the past year, because of their sexual orientation—
● Eight of ten students had been verbally harassed at school;
● Four of ten had been physically harassed at school;
● Six of ten felt unsafe at school; and
● One of five had been the victim of a physical assault at school.
LGBT youth are also at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide. A nationally representative study of adolescents in grades 7–12 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. More studies are needed to better understand the risks for suicide among transgender youth.
A 2010 study by the Center for American Progress estimated that 5% to 10% of youth are LGBT, but among homeless youth, that range shoots up to 20% to 40%, often because they are runaways from unsupportive homes. Some of the other estimates, about the "higher rates of abuse and victimization," are also sobering.
Exact numbers can be elusive, but the American Association of Suicidology summarizes:
Many studies have found that LGB youth attempt suicide more frequently than straight peers. Garafalo et al. (1999) found that LGB high school students and students unsure of their sexual orientation were 3.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year than their straight peers. Eisenberg and Resnick (2006) found LGB high school students were more than twice as likely as their straight peers to have attempted suicide.
Meanwhile, opposition to anti-bullying efforts in schools has been lead by the religious right and other social conservatives because they believe that "All of it is being used as an opportunity to force homosexual teaching into the schools." It is their belief, whether justified by religion or otherwise, that it's important to be able to bully gay kids to enforce what they see as social norms and the natural order. (It also ties into their "gay cooties" theory, that it's contagious.)
Personally, I'd call the anti-anti-bullying efforts dangerous, asshole behavior, not tolerance. Let's grant that certain prominent anti-gay pundits and their defenders don't condone such behavior. But let's also note that feeling upset about being called a bigot, while unpleasant, is categorically different from facing the real threat of violence. Even with shifting attitudes, in the nation as a whole, hostility toward LGBT people is not theoretical. Anti-gay social conservatives may be verbally chewed out in some arenas, but there aren't wide swaths of America where they're routinely beaten up for their views or identity. (Not to mention that being a bigot, unlike being gay, is a choice, even if one makes caveats about upbringing.) If publically calling out not only anti-gay behavior but rhetoric is necessary to create a less hostile environment for gay youth (as it surely is on some level), but this comes at the cost of making some social conservatives uncomfortable, that's not a remotely hard tradeoff.
Not long ago, Josh Barro, who's both Republican and gay, tweeted that, "Anti-LGBT attitudes are terrible for people in all sorts of communities. They linger and oppress, and we need to stamp them out, ruthlessly." The last part's a bit inartful perhaps, but as Roy Edroso chronicled, right-bloggers jumped on it as a call for violence versus a call to speak out, and started invoking Kristallnacht and making other Nazi analogies, with no fucking irony at all. (As those who weren't asleep through history class will remember, the Nazis killed homosexuals, and the pink triangle branding they employed was repurposed as a gay rights sign in memory of this. Also: Godwin!) So, for those of you keeping score at home, in right-wing land, speaking out against anti-gay bigotry is just as oppressive as gay people getting murdered.
We'll get to more polite expressions of anti-gay sentiment in a second, but while those have their problems as well, let's note the standards of tolerance and discourse here, and make no mistake, this level of animosity is more common than the "polite" stuff. This isn't just a sense of privilege – it's ideological and cultural narcissism. It's a sense of entitlement so deep that they can act like complete dicks to other people yet still insist that they're the victims. (In other words, movement conservatism. The politics of tribal aggrievement have made Rush Limbaugh very rich.)
The Public Sphere
Can someone believe that another group, by virtue of some immutable characteristic, deserves to be treated like second-class citizens, yet be truly "tolerant"? I believe that Cameron, Linker and Ross Douthat, among others, would argue that there's a relatively polite form of opposition to gay marriage and other gay rights that represents "tolerance." I would argue that no, that position – that someone else deserves fewer rights (justified because of religion or tradition or personal discomfort or whatever) is inherently and inescapably bigoted. (Use "prejudiced" if you prefer, and want to designate gradations.) Such people may be pleasant enough on other issues, but it doesn't change that they do not support a system of tolerance.
Here's where I think it's useful to distinguish between tolerance on a system level (especially involving legal rights) and tolerance on (inter)personal level, and what could be called "public manners." This chart is a bit tongue in cheek, but might be helpful:
("Liberal" is, as noted, liberal in the Enlightenment sense, which would include tolerant small "c" conservatives and the like, anyone who is committed in general to basic social equality.)
Using these definitions, both Cameron and Linker seem to be conflating (inter)personal "tolerance" in a social situation with support for a tolerant system. They can coexist but they are not the same thing. It's absolutely fine if they feel that, say, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins or Josh Barro (or yours truly) is an asshole on a personal level. But their complaint is about a social interaction, about speech in the public sphere. This group ("smug hipster asshole" in the chart) nonetheless supports a tolerant system (unless I've missed some public statement otherwise). They support the right of Cameron, for instance, to speak out, and would oppose him being jailed for his views. In this sense, they are tolerant of him (on the system level). However, they also will exercise their right to call him out on his bigotry. Flipping this, Mike Huckabee has a pretty amiable manner, but he opposes gay marriage. He may be personally "tolerant" in that he wouldn't use gay slurs when meeting a gay person, but he still doesn't support a tolerant system (he'd be a "friendly but misguided authoritarian" on the chart).
Using these definitions, (inter)personal "tolerance" isn't always a virtue, either – imagine a teacher who witnesses one student making a bigoted remark to another – a good teacher would intervene on behalf of the victim, which would necessitate being personally "intolerant" to the student making the bigoted remark while simultaneously upholding a tolerant system that protects the victim. That wouldn't mean the insulter was an irredeemable kid, either, and the teacher could work with him later. But in the immediate moment, the teacher's duty is to uphold a community standard, a system, of tolerance. Those who speak out against anti-gay bigotry in the public sphere, whether gently or bluntly, gracefully or clumsily, are essentially trying to do the same thing.
"Tolerance" can be a somewhat ambiguous term, unfortunately. For someone ignoring the power dynamics involved, it's possible to sincerely view bigots who believe that other people should be treated as second-class citizens as "tolerant" and people who object to that view and speak out about it as "intolerant."
There's something to be said for the more polite forms of bigotry – it's definitely better than violence, or bullying. It's the relatively, um, enlightened bigotry of a certain breed of missionary, that "you people are inferior, but you still deserve some degree of decent treatment." Social conservatives who adopt "the missionary position" can still screw things up royally, but admittedly, they're much better than their side's more belligerent and hateful wankers.
It might help to delve further into the concept of public manners. One last chart might prove useful:
(Click the image for a larger view, or you can read a text version here.)
The main points here are that some people will recognize prejudice in themselves, but nonetheless realize it's their own hang-up, trust "the better angels of their nature" and support equality for others. No one is really giving such people grief. On the contrary, activists for gay rights appreciate the support.
Other people will be prejudiced as well, but will oppose equality. They'll also keep this largely to themselves and only talk about it with a small few. Their bigotry, typically of a more mild form, is restrained in the broader sphere by their sense of "public manners." They might feel uncomfortable from time to time, but no one's really giving them grief either, because their discretion prevents it, as intended. Eventually, their side will probably lose the vote. Some may eventually change their mind.
The real conflicts arise from the more vocal opposition, when social conservatives bring their views into the public sphere but also expect them to dominate and go unchallenged. Basically, this is what Linker, Cameron, and others are asking for – special privileges for anti-gay activists in the public sphere. (Obviously they don't see it this way.) They want to define "public manners" in a way that allows anti-gay activists to express their bigoted views (sorry, there's no honest way around it) yet simultaneously prevents gay rights advocates from criticizing them on those grounds. Hey, they're free to make that pitch, but the boundaries of acceptable public discourse are an ongoing negotiation between different groups. (djw's post is especially good on these points. I'll add that "We get to win because of religion" isn't a convincing argument – it's not a good system belief – about how public discourse should operate.)
The Overdue Finale
As Henry Farrell points out:
Bigotry derived from religious principles is still bigotry. . . .
And if [Conor] Friedersdorf wants to defend his sincerely-religiously-against-gay-marriage people as not being bigots, he has to defend the sincerely-religiously-against-racial-miscegenation people too. They fit exactly into Friedersdorf’s proposed intellectual category.
The standard, the "system belief," proposed by Linker, Friedersdorf and others as an alternative to the liberal one of equality, where instead bigotry justified by religion gets special treatment, is fundamentally unworkable. As Scott Lemieux puts it, "I am not arguing that the religious beliefs are trivial; I am arguing that the burden on these beliefs is trivial."
Gay marriage makes Ross Douthat, Kirk Cameron and their fellow social conservatives uncomfortable, and they believe it harms society somehow. Okay, duly noted. Now let's weigh that against the happiness of gay couples and the sometimes significant financial burden that not being able to marry imposes on gay couples. That's not a hard tradeoff. Similarly, Kirk Cameron, Damon Linker and others don't like that social conservatives are called bigots, or intolerant – also noted. Let's weigh that once more against bullying, violence and general hostility against LGBT youth, and the value gained from challenging such behavior and attitudes. Again, it's no contest. It's not that the social conservative position hasn't been given a fair hearing – it's that it's not a good one, and an increasing number of people don't find it convincing. As this trend continues, and cultural and social norms shift, the freedom of social conservatives remains the same, but their privilege is being diminished. This is not a bad thing. But of course they don't like it, and not all of them are dealing with it gracefully.
Apologies for a long and somewhat repetitive post. (As it is, I didn't address some arguments, but I think the posts I linked at the start handle other points extremely well.) I do hope some scrap of this helps break through those recurring arguments about "tolerance," especially from the 'you're intolerant of our intolerance' crowd. It's vital to remember – they're not being oppressed. They're simply losing a fair fight (and some are whining about it).