Okay, I admit that I am a big fan of comic superheros. I have been since I was a kid. It is fun to think about what we can do with superpowers. Of course in the comic books the superpowers have to deal with enhanced physical, and sometimes mental, abilities. This gives heros the ability to overpower the “bad guys.” But it is kind of cool to think about intellectual nerd “superpowers.” For example, having the power to induce questions from students when they are confused instead of having them just look back at me with blank faces would be a great power to have. That would make for a more enriching academic environment. But it would not make for an interesting comic book scene, and so I would not expect Marvel or DC to provide one of their heros with that power any time soon.
However, a really nice superpower to provide better discourse would be the ability to ban misused phrases. These are the sort of phrases which makes the person saying the phrase feel good but really does not further our discourse. If I had that power, then the phrase I would like to ban is “intolerant of the intolerant.” Instead, the person should just be honest and say, “I’m intolerant because I do not like them.” Because ultimately that is what intolerance is about and legitimating it with an excuse of why a person is intolerant does not remove the reality of that intolerance.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are two definitions of intolerant that do not deal with physiological issues. The first is “unable or unwilling to endure” and the second is “unwilling to grant or share social, political, or professional rights.” When people talk about being intolerant of the intolerant, they generally are not overtly planning on taking away the rights of those they are intolerant towards, although they may end up doing just that with measures with disparate impact. Thus, the first definition should be the working definition for the balance of this blog entry. Those who use the intolerant of the intolerant term are basically saying that they are unwilling to endure others because they are unwilling to endure those they disagree with politically, socially or religiously. There really is no difference, as it concerns the action of intolerance, between those using this term and those they see as intolerant. Those they see as intolerant are intolerant towards those they do not like just like those who state that they are “intolerant of the intolerant.” Both groups are intolerant, but the group they are intolerant towards differs.
All of us are intolerant. I am intolerant in certain ways. When I was single, I was intolerant of the idea of dating a woman who did not share my similar Christian beliefs. No matter how beautiful, charismatic, smart or any other wonderful quality a woman had, if she did not have my Christian values, then I put any idea of romance completely out of my mind. This is intolerance as I am unwilling to endure a romantic relationship with a woman who does not share my Christian beliefs. I have my reasons for this intolerance, and so if someone accused me of being intolerant, I could provide those reasons. But at the end of the day, I have to admit that I was intolerant. There are plenty of other people who are not intolerant in that specific way since they are open to romance no matter the religion of their potential partner. But they may be intolerant in other ways when it comes to that potential partner. In fact the term “dealbreaker” is how we identify our romantic intolerances.
There is another way I am intolerant. I am personally intolerant of ideas I disagree with. I am unwilling to endure, or accept, ideas that I believe to be wrong. So I believe that I am right about certain ideas and that others are wrong. This does not mean that I hate those with whom I disagree. But if a person believes in anything strongly then they strongly disagree with other ideas. As a Christian, I disagree with those with different religious beliefs. I may be right or they may be right. But it is important to acknowledge that we are in disagreement. So I can be rightly accused of being intolerant in that I am unwilling to accept ideas that I disagree with.
But I am not alone in that type of intolerance. There are people who are not intolerant when it comes to religious beliefs since religious questions are not something they think about very much. But they may be politically intolerant. They may be “intolerant” towards political ideas of global warming is a myth or of those who support Obamacare. They are unwilling to accept those ideas and strongly disagree with those who have them. Others are intolerant as it concerns lifestyles. For example, there are vegetarians and vegans who are intolerant of the idea that it is acceptable to eat meat. It is possible that there are people without any strong convictions and tolerate any idea out there. But such creatures must certainly be rare. I speculate that 99.9 percent of us have some degree of intolerance because we believe some idea to be right and other ideas to be wrong.
Consequently, it is not enough to state that a person is intolerant. It is also important to know what we mean by intolerance. Do we mean a type of intolerance by which we decide who we are going to interact with on a romantic, or even friendship, level? Do we mean intolerance in that we have strongly held ideas and thus to not tolerate alternate ideas that we see as incorrect? This is a type of intolerance that most of us are willing to accept. But usually when people talk of intolerant of the intolerant, they do not have such a benign meaning of intolerance. Instead, they are indicating an intolerance that is an unfair rejection of those who do not deserve to be rejected. Their comment about being intolerant of the intolerant is a suggestion that those who receive their hatred deserve to be rejected.
So let us get to the core of the matter. In my classes, I often teach that there are no truly tolerant subcultures. All subcultures have out-groups which they are not willing to endure. For some, it is feminists and atheists. For others, it is conservative Christians and NRA members. But all groups have some degree of intolerance. They believe that certain groups deserve to be rejected. The reasons why such groups deserve to be rejected clearly vary. But the willingness not to endure certain groups is the same impulse regardless if we are talking about Christians fundamentalists, Islamic radicals, feminist activists or GLBT advocates. How each of these groups express their intolerance differs, but the general impulse to be intolerant is the same. We all have our reasons why we have intolerance towards certain individuals. The reasons are not equally beneficial and it may be fair to say that some groups deserve to be rejected more than others. But to come to that conclusion we need to discuss reasons for our intolerance rather than inadequately attempting to justify that intolerance by stating that others are intolerant as well.
When the person exclaims that they are intolerant of the intolerant, they are trying to justify their intolerance. But all intolerant individuals attempt to justify their intolerance. They possess scorn and alienation towards the members of those outgroups and thus they are intolerant. It is fair to argue that individuals have good reasons for being intolerant to certain groups. But to make that argument, an individual has to show why the members of the outgroups are wrong. That can lead to a rational discussion about which ideas or practices are better. But the intolerant of the intolerant comment is meant to short-circuit that discussion. The members of the outgroup are conceptualized as wrong merely because they are intolerant, even though the person himself or herself has also admitted to being intolerant. This attempted labeling of intolerance is a way to dismiss those one disagrees with without having to engage in the ideas of that person. This is the sort of dodge that persuades me to have the superpower to ban the phase “intolerant of the intolerant.” No, you are just intolerant.
In my ideal world, ideas would compete with each other without the propensity to label those with different ideas with pejorative terms that shut off debate. If a group has ideas that are wrong then we owe it to them, and to those listening to us, to show them why their ideas are wrong rather than stigmatize them into silence. Ironically, what the “intolerant of the intolerant” assertion does is allow individuals to mistreat those who are members of the outgroup without offering a real critique of the ideas offered by those in the outgroups. It has the pretention of asserting that one is right without the burden of showing why that person is right. Since I want a society where there are at least reasonable attempts at rational discourse, I want to have the superpower to ban the term “intolerant of the intolerant.”
From this day on, when I hear someone state that they are intolerant of the intolerant then in my mind I just think, “Oh, you’re intolerant.” The person may think that his or her intolerant is different in type from the intolerance of those he or she wants to criticize but in reality this is not the case. Will I tell that person to his or her face “Oh, you’re intolerant”? That depends of course on the context of the social situation and especially on whether I would embarrass my wife with my statement (sleeping on the couch is not fun). But regardless of whether I state the line or not, it is what I will think when someone attempts to claim a false superiority with an intolerant of the intolerant line.
Finally, it behooves me to mention that accusations of intolerance are not the only ways people attempt to shut up those they are debating against. Other accusations of bigotry, hatred, prejudice, and similar terms are also used to shut down debate rather than deal with different ideas. The challenge for those who use those terms is to assess whether they are using them to shut off debate about what they see as unpleasant ideas. Such individuals would also benefit from introspection in which they can explore whether they are as guilty of the bigotry, hatred or prejudice they accuse others of having. Because it does not rationalize intolerance when you aim that intolerance at those you define as intolerant. It only means that you are intolerant.