On Toleration

In this day of increasing intolerance it behooves us to come to grips with the notion of tolerance and ask ourselves just how much outrage should be tolerated. In an attempt to answer this question I will begin with an interesting comment in Michael Walzer’s book from which I stole the title for this post: On Toleration. Walzer says, in part:

“Toleration itself is often underestimated, as if it is the least we can do for our fellows, the most minimal of their entitlements. In fact, tolerance (the attitude) takes many different forms, and toleration (the practice) can be arranged in different ways. Even the most grudging forms and precarious arrangements are very good things, sufficiently rare in human history that they require not only practical but also theoretical appreciation. . . .[Toleration] sustains life itself, because persecution is often to the death, and it also sustains common lives, the different communities in which we live. Toleration makes difference possible; difference makes toleration necessary.”

The problem is, of course, we have a leader who preaches the opposite of toleration, a man who harangues and berates difference and seeks to raise outrage to a fever pitch. We must ask how much of what is said in support of breeding hatred is to be tolerated. To what extent is our freedom of speech a right to be protected above all others? Is one’s right to free speech license to spread hatred and rouse the rabble to violence? I suspect not, though I realize that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know just where to draw the line.

The same is true for toleration in general. As Walzer notes, it is a good thing. Indeed, in a democracy it is an essential thing. In a democracy difference must be tolerated because all voices need to be heard and all ways of life must be protected. Or must they? Must we tolerate the behavior of a man in the theater who shouts “fire” just for a laugh? Must we tolerate the violence of an athlete who beats his wife? Again, where do we draw the line?

I might suggest that we draw the line when toleration leads to harm, knowing full well how troublesome that word can be. We must tolerate difference and defend the right of others to be eccentric, even positively strange, to the point where that behavior leads to harm to another person — or an animal. No further.

Walzer suggests a broader criterion, namely, allowing individuals to coexist in peace. But please note that he also suggests limits:

“To argue that different groups and/or individuals should be allowed to coexist in peace is not to argue that every actual or imaginable difference should be tolerated.”

In a word, there are some things that simply should not be tolerated. The problem is to decide in each case which it is to be, fully realizing that allowing folks to coexist in peace rules out any harmful, or potentially harmful, treatment toward others.

It is often noted that today’s youth should be praised for their tolerance, for the willingness of the young to put up with almost anything. Old folks like me complain about the noise from a passing car or a crying baby in a crowded restaurant. The young would probably not even notice. Is this tolerance I wonder? Or is it mere indifference, or even obliviousness? Are the young so wrapped up in themselves that they simply don’t notice the things that bother many others? There is an important difference here, but this difference, among so many others, must also be tolerated. It’s what makes the world go ’round. It is what makes a democracy strong. But when tolerance shades off into indifference we need to pause, because it means that we have stopped thinking about those things that ought NOT to be tolerated.

A leader who stands up before an adoring crowd and berates others because of their look, the color of their skin, their religious affiliation, or their immigrant status is no leader for a country that calls itself a democracy. He, or she, is the epitome of intolerance and an example of the type who simply doesn’t know where the line is to be drawn. And, as I suggest, it must be drawn when tolerance leads to the harming of others, or the determination to plant within the hearts and minds of the listeners a hatred of those who are different from themselves, a hatred that can easily lead to violence. Speech and behavior of all types must be not only allowed but even defended in a democratic society. But when speech or behavior cross the line then toleration ceases to be a good thing. It amounts to callous indifference to the pain and suffering of others, something that should never be tolerated.

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Colin’s Sit-Down

I admit it: I have never been a huge Colin Kaepernick fan. I don’t like all the tattoos and I have thought him a bit of a doofus when he has spoken to the media — like so many of his fellow N.F.L. players. Colin is, of course, the wannabe  quarterback of the San Fransisco Forty-Niners football team. Before the last two pre-season football games he has refused to stand during the national anthem as a protest  against what he perceives as injustices in this country, particularly injustices involving minorities. He also includes in his protest, as I understand it, the inaction of those paid to “serve and protect” the minorities and other disadvantaged persons. This topic has been very nicely discussed in a recent post by Jill Dennison that I reblogged. It is well worth reading.

The interesting thing about Colin’s protest is that the protest itself has drawn more attention (and ire) than the injustices it is directed against. It is seen by many as unpatriotic despite the fact that the First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees each of us the right to speak our minds and express ourselves as we see fit. I would argue that he is being a bit of a rebel in the true American spirit. This country is guilty of a great many injustices against minorities, increasingly of late. And we have seen the police reluctant to step in and even to over-react when they do step in. Theirs is a difficult role to play in neighborhoods where the tempers are at the boiling point and violence is just a word away. I don’t envy them in the least.

But the fact that this young man would choose to draw attention to a situation that needs to be addressed should be applauded, not condemned. It takes great courage these days to stand up for what one believes, and for that alone Kaepernick is to be praised. Whether or not his action will have the desired effect is doubtful, and there is always the possibility that it will have a reverse effect — especially in today’s political climate. But as an action in protest of an injustice it is not to be condemned as “unpatriotic.” After all, the flag he chooses to refuse to salute does represent his right to protest. And the actions he is protesting against are not those of a country that prides itself on taking and holding the moral high ground.

As a nation we have much to answer for of late and we have never fully accepted the equality of the races. Lincoln thought we never would. And with a major politician with a mouth far too large raising temperatures and tempers around the country, waiving red flags in front of bigots and racists, the injustices Kaepernick is protesting against become all too visible.

We need to pause and reflect just what it is this country stands for. If for no other reason, Colin Kaepernick is to be lauded for his stand.

Free Speech?

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the government may not establish any laws that “impede the free exercise of religion or abridging freedom of speech,” among other things. The F.B.I.’s recent attempts to force Apple to open private documents on the grounds that there might be information there that threatens the United States centers around the question of how much power the U.S. government actually has, given the wording of the First Amendment and our presumed right to privacy. Leaving aside for the moment the question of privacy, clearly the so-called “right” of free speech is guaranteed by the First  Amendment, despite the fact that it speaks against the government’s misuse of its power, and not about the ordinary citizen at all. But the question has been raised repeatedly as to just what that “right” guarantees. The famous clounter-example is the alleged right to shout out “fire” in a crowded theater, and that has been something of a paradigm: the right to free speech does not extend so far as to endanger others. That would appear to be common sense.

The Supreme Court has dealt with numerous cases of alleged violations of the First Amendment on the part of the government, going back as far as 1919 when Eugene V. Deb’s outspoken opposition to the war led him to face 10 years in prison. Furthermore, as the following case will illustrate, in 1969 the Court ruled against the right to free speech when it is designed to incite a riot — which would be a corollary to the so-called right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. I quote the always reliable Wikipedia at this point:

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court held that government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is directed to inciting, and is likely to incite, imminent lawless action. [Italics added].

Now, given the undeniable fact that the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the highest office in this land has said things that led inexorably (some would say) to violence — in the case of an alarming increase in the burning of Muslim Mosques in this country since the speeches began and the recent violence at his rallies where protesters have been struck and thrown to the ground by “security” personnel or by irate supporters of the candidate — one might ask whether this man’s outspoken bigotry and hate-and-fear-mongering ought to be allowed by law. It is apparently not speech protected by the First Amendment since it leads, apparently, to violence. Indeed, it would appear to be a clear case of speech “inciting, and likely to incite, imminent lawless action.”

It is interesting that this man’s crude and abominable behavior should raise such a question. If he were not running for the highest office in the country it would be a small item, hardly worth mentioning (though still interesting none the less). But given the circumstances, it strikes me that his behavior is not only lawless, but ought to disqualify him from the high office he seeks where he would be sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States — a document about which he seems to be entirely ignorant, and which he flagrantly abuses.

Hooray For Canada!

Ya gotta love it! The border guards between Canada and Michigan refused admission into Canada of pastor Terry Jones and his fellow passengers. The story begins with a couple of tasty paragraphs:

Stephanie Sapp said fellow pastor and her husband Wayne Sapp, along with Jones, were turned back at the Michigan-Ontario border after being detained for several hours. Jones, who leads Florida’s tiny Dove World Outreach Center, and Wayne Sapp, were scheduled to attend Freedom Showdown, an inter-faith debate Thursday evening outside the Ontario Legislature.

Stephanie Sapp said Jones was denied entry because of a fine he got in Germany almost 20 years ago for using the title “doctor” there (he had received an honorary doctorate in theology from a Californian university in 1993). Also, both men had been charged with breaching the peace at a planned rally in Detroit last year.

I’ll overlook the fascinating question of why the man wanted to be addressed as “doctor” after holding an honorary doctoral degree from “a California university.” (But I do wonder what on earth they were thinking??) The Germans had it right: they should have fined him for impersonating a respectable person. And I would defend anyone’s right to “breach the peace” in the name of conscience. But bear in mind that this is the man of God who ordered the burning of the Quran not long ago precipitating a riot in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. He is apparently not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

But I love to think the Canadians have it right to refuse admission of this man into their country. I’m all for freedom of speech (which he claims he is being denied), but there are certain people who simply shouldn’t be allowed to open their mouths in public. Defending a person’s right to spread hatred is pushing the first amendment to its limits. Hate speech is designed to drive people apart and start riots; that sort of thing coming from a professed man of the cloth is doubly reprehensible. However, we cannot pick and choose what a person is allowed to say, though (speaking for myself) there are times when I would like to!!

In this regard, one can sympathize with those in the Middle East who wondered why this country doesn’t refuse to allow films such as “The Innocence of Muslims” that promote racial hatred and which has recently led al-Qaida to declare a “holy war” against the United States and Israel. One can understand, if not sympathize with, those who were outraged at the insults heaped on the founder of Islam. Our notion that free speech is a basic human right is not one that is shared by every other culture. But our defense of free speech is vital to what this country means and we were right to allow the film to be shown in spite of the fact that it stirred up hatred and violence in the Middle East.

We must protect any person’s right to say anything as long as it doesn’t directly result in harm to another person. Determining just what this might be before the person speaks or writes is a problem. One must try to determine the person’s intent, which is not always clear. And the intention of the film-maker in this case was to increase sympathy for the Christians living in Egypt, not to spread hatred — or so he says. Whenever speech is prohibited there is always the danger of censorship which, like any form of repression, is anathema to a free country. Thus, while I may applaud the Canadians for doing what I would love to do myself — namely, refuse to allow Terry Jones entry into the United States — I must admit that he has a right to his opinions no matter how hateful and stupid they might be. It’s the price we pay I suppose.