Universal Translator

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Toward a Liberal Understanding of "Tolerance"

Elsewhere I had someone take me to task for mocking Mitt Romney’s “magic underpants.”  I was told that asking questions about the Mormons’ magic underpants is the equivalent of calling a Muslim “raghead.”

I didn’t respond to this attack for two reasons.  First, there simply is no way – for what should be obvious reasons - that this analogy holds up, so the entire argument-by-analogy just makes no sense and needn’t be respected.  Second, I think that I’ve gotten fairly good at detecting trolls.  My sense is that the person complaining was hoping to draw me into a conversation in which he could use my inherent tolerance of others who aren’t exactly like me – which some right-wingers seem to think is a liberal “exploit” to be used against us – to force me to apologize for the fact he had caught me mocking Romney and the Mormon religion.

So I didn’t respond to this troll’s specious attack, but it did get me thinking . . . and I suppose that is always a good thing.

And what it got me thinking is this:  my understanding of how tolerance and respect works is way more fun than Conservatives’ understanding of how tolerance and respect works.

As I understand it, Conservatives believe that anyone who is truly tolerant must treat all ideas – no matter how batshit insane or evil – as equally worthy of contemplation.  They believe truly tolerant people must respect all ideas, even if the tolerant people disagree with those ideas.  And they believe that anyone who professes a belief in tolerance must be willing to tolerate all things – including intolerance from others. 

Which means that if you express disapproval of a Klansman because he is a Klansman then Conservatives will tell you that you’re not being “tolerant” and smirk at how you’ve been hoisted on your own liberal petard.  If you complain about old Southern white voters hating black people, then you are not being “tolerant” of old Southern white voters' racist hatred.  And if you complain about the elected town clerk not obeying the law by refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay people then you are not being tolerant of that town clerk’s personal religion – the one keeping a bunch of other people from exercising their own rights.

This, of course, is insane, which is why Conservatives like defining “tolerance” this way.  If “tolerance” means that all things are worthy of respect then it also means nothing is properly the subject of attack and that means we can’t really attack them.  The Conservatives’ understanding of “tolerance” seems like a drag.

So let me tell you about my understanding of tolerance and respect:  everything is equally mockable, so long as you can make it funny.  Funny absolves all.  I’ve heard comedians make jokes about The Holocaust and they were hilarious.  The Holocaust wasn’t, of course, but the jokes were. 

Lenny Bruce used to do a phenomenal bit with a black guy that completely skewered the idea of racism while holding up his character – the racist – as the hero.  George Carlin had a bit where he made a very funny joke about a true story of rape just to prove the point that he could make a joke out of a true story of rape.

Nobody (in their right mind) thinks that Bruce approved racism or that Carlin approved rape, or that either one of these geniuses thought the fact these things existed was funny – their point was that while these things were the last thing from funny, they existed in the world and could still be made fun of. 

And this is kind of what my own idea of tolerance springs out of.  I don’t think all things should be spared mockery because all things are equally worthy of respect; I think instead that, if you squint just right, all things are worthy of being mocked and thus are equally targets of disrespect.
And I have to say that my understanding of “tolerance” works out way better than the Conservatives’ idea.  Because if you understand “tolerance” to mean that nothing is sacred, then nothing is sacred and you have the freedom to attack things that aren’t sacred and that, at the same time, also happen to really, really suck.

Like the Klan.  Or the Religious Right.

I’m intolerant of intolerance, motherfuckers!

And with that off of my chest, I’m gonna go eat some freshly-made pasta, drink a bottle of wine, and ponder the Epimenides Paradox.

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