Sarcasm

In my last post I ended with a sarcastic question — after describing the difficult and time-consuming effort an old lady made to climb into her van and drive away from the grocery store. I asked “And she still drives. Isn’t it wonderful?” That was sarcasm, though at least one reader took me seriously and added her praise to the seeming compliment I was paying the old lady.

To be sure the older drivers show an indomitable spirit. And as an older driver myself I can easily understand why no one wants to give up the privilege and independence of driving one’s own car. However, there comes a point where the license should be denied older folks — that point where their presence on the roads poses a danger to others. Let me give you a specific example.

I have a very dear friend who has been blind from birth. His is indeed an indomitable spirit as he refuses to admit that there is anything he cannot do. With another friend he spent one supper re-shingling roofs in the town where they both live. He taught himself to use power tools and regularly repairs clocks. He is a marvel. I posted a blog about him several years ago. But I didn’t mention the following incident.

One day as he was walking home with his beloved dog from the Food Shelf where he volunteers, he stoped at a traffic light to wait for the red light to stop the crossing traffic. The light turned green for those on the street next to him and red for the cross-traffic. He stepped out to cross the road and an old man who had been sitting at the red light made a right turn into him destroying his hearing aids, tearing his minuscule, and hurting his dog — who died from internal injuries a few weeks later.

The man insisted to the police who soon arrived that he had a green light and was perfectly within his rights to turn his car onto the cross-road. Days later, when my friend went to the man’s house to assure him that he was not going to sue him (though he had grounds to do so) the man was still professing his innocence.

So I have little patience with those who think it wonderful that old folks drive a car and I will soon have a painful decision to make myself in this regard if I want to avoid being called a hypocrite.

The problem, of course, is to determine when to deny the older folks the license to drive. The old man in my example swears to this day that he had a perfect right to harm a blind pedestrian and his dog. I dare say he is not willing to give up his license. But should it not be taken away from him — especially after an accident such as this? I simply ask.

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.