The Inherent Danger of a Tolerant Society

The election is over. The race card, economy card, liberal agenda, obstructionist republican and “birther” cards have all been played. But there’s one gift that keeps on giving: the mythical virtue of tolerance. Please, let us be done with this. Proclaim the limited benefits of tolerance if you must, but not the virtue. Tolerance is not a Virtue.

Notice, I’m talking capital ‘V’irtue. What is Virtue, other than Webster’s “general moral excellence?” A suitable definition might read thus: “A concept, characteristic or ideal that is meaningful and worthy in and of itself, regardless of its particular application.” Virtues are like Platonic forms. They stand alone, basalt pillars upon which rests the mantle of human concern, tried and proven true by the fires of time and circumstance. The classic virtues—Love, Patience, Forgiveness, Loyalty, etc—stand on the strength of their own, well…virtue. At best, tolerance is a civic virtue. We need a reality check to take it off the high pedestal of Moral Virtue to which it has been falsely elevated in our national dialog. The obvious (and perplexingly unmissed) fact of tolerance as a pillar upon which to build society is that, as a moral construct, tolerance is slave to whatever is being tolerated.

We don’t tolerate Servanthood and Generosity, we encourage them! As moral qualities, those are noble in and of themselves, requiring no tolerance. By definition, tolerance merely comes in shades of distaste, not praise. We tolerate bad sitcoms and the rude Burger King kid who keeps putting too much mayonaise on our hamburger. Why? Because those don’t make or break the ethical fabric of our day, much less our society. In the humdrum milieu of lesser circumstance, a generous spirit is not only called for, it is essential to polite society. On the other hand, we are utterly and justifiably intolerant of people who put razor blades in Halloween apples, and we all know why, and our intolerance of them is celebrated, not reviled. Murder comes in three degrees, of which we tolerate none. Your state’s Attorney General doesn’t win his bid for governor if he can demonstrate how tolerant he was toward that Halloween criminal he plea-bargained to 6-months of time served. You see, a society can’t afford to tolerate certain things.

Here’s a touchy one. Once upon a time, we didn’t tolerate homosexuality to be positioned as normative. In 1975, Time quoted gay activist Barbara Gittings on the fact that their political end game was to define homosexuality as “a way of life fully on a par with heterosexuality.” Time responded in a manner both downright reasonable, and, in the same breath (gasp!), intolerable nearly forty years later: “It is this goal of full acceptance, which no known society past or present has granted to homosexuals, that makes many Americans apprehensive.”

You see, tolerance is yoked. It does not stand alone. Therefore, tolerance is prone to sliding. For an otherwise charitable, concerned soul to qualify as tolerant in today’s sexually fluid climate, the terms are clear: one must heartily support everything about the both gay lifestyle and their political cause. Approval has been mandated. Disapproval will not be tolerated. Your small-minded “apprehensiveness” is unfairly repressive to the enlightened progressiveness of our society. Get with the program!

Such is the difference between moral virtue and civic virtue. The familiar irony of this most tolerant era is that the ultra-tolerant often spew the most vitriol toward those who do not share their same level of tolerance. This begs the question: may I claim the moral high ground if, for example, I hate you because you, being African-American, don’t like white people? Meanwhile, Virtues such as Love and Truth are superior in every way (and are also vastly more difficult to maintain in tension) than the lowest common denominator of tolerance. But the tension serves a vital purpose, to keep us from falling into a ditch on either side.

Insert your own pet issues into the formula. Whether Zealot, whore, Pharisee, pro-Rome or anti-Tax Collector (conservative, liberal, pro-choice, gay rights, etc.), Jesus always responded in Love. And yet, with perfect Love, He never shirked a value judgment to make it easier for someone in sin to feel good about themselves. Do we honestly think Jesus soft-pedaled their sin? Of course not! But his perfect mix of Virtues elevated the conversation above dogma, inclusion, exclusion or intolerance. And yet, here’s what Republicans and Evangelicals miss: Those whom Truth must condemn, Love would atone for. Here’s what Liberals miss: Love without Truth damns everyone equally. This is the inherent danger of a society which values tolerance above virtue, or attempts to rebrand tolerance as Virtue. True north is gone, kaput. Your contributions and social integration are measured simply according to the ratio of how much you permit versus how little you fuss. We’re all free, free to the max, and a pox on anyone who proclaims the emperor to be, in fact, naked. What, public nudity is wrong? How dare you! Contrast with Truth and Love, the purity and clarity of which would adorn any political aspirant like fine, royal robes, leaving me to wonder why everyone’s so eager for the cheap leisure suit of tolerance? I’ll tell you. Because it’s easy. Also, because you can appear virtuous, without having to actually be virtuous in your response to those with whom you strongly disagree. Tolerance is the trump card that beats moral culpability every time.

Love, Generosity, Sacrifice, Compassion, Patience and Truth transcend moral climates and political double-talk. They are more noble because they are virtuous in every circumstance. Until we strive for these Virtues in a secular sense, we shall continue to flail about as a society, and spiral ever deeper into moral, spiritual, social and economic chaos. Tolerance won’t pay the bills. It is a matter of intellectual honesty: The classic Virtues are beyond hypocrisy. Tolerance is not.

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