On Tolerating Intolerance

Zinnia Jones at Freethought Blogs had a great post last week exposing Matt Moore, an evangelical and so-called “ex-gay” who loudly boasted that Jesus had cured him of homosexuality. It turns out the cure wasn’t exactly complete, since Moore had an active profile on the gay hookup site Grindr.

When confronted with the evidence of his hypocrisy, Moore admitted the account was his, claiming that he had been “disobedient” and that Jesus had already forgiven him for it (a clear example of Haggard’s Law in action). But he then went on to accuse Zinnia of being mean to him:

“People such as Zinnia preach a message of tolerance and kindness to all, yet they are not tolerant of my beliefs and show me no kindness.”

As I observed at the time, he was effectively saying, “If you’re such a tolerant person, why won’t you tolerate my intolerance?”

For Moore’s sake and for the sake of anyone else who makes the same complaint, let me explain why I reject this argument. The easiest explanation is based on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game-theory puzzle that’s an important underpinning of my theory of morality. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an abstraction of a scenario where two people are arrested and interrogated for the same crime, with each one pressured to testify against the other. The point is that you can either choose to cooperate with the other player or to betray them. Betraying when the other player cooperates gives you the highest payoff; mutual cooperation gives you a lesser but still high payoff; mutual betrayal gives a low payoff; and the sucker who cooperates when the other player betrays gets the lowest payoff of all.

There have been tournaments where computer programs play repeated rounds of the Prisoner’s Dilemma against each other. Although some intricate strategies have been dreamed up, using complicated algorithms to try to predict when the other player will cooperate so that you can backstab them, there’s one simple strategy that consistently beats every competitor. It’s called “Tit for Tat”, and it works like this: On the first round, cooperate; on every subsequent round, do whatever your opponent did last round.

When Tit for Tat meets another player who’s reliable, it racks up rounds of mutually beneficial cooperation. When it meets a player who tries to backstab, it retaliates, ensuring that the cheater can’t benefit in the long run from their treachery. And because this strategy is so simple and easily predictable, it ensures that other players will recognize both these facts.

When they play the “why won’t you tolerate my intolerance?” card, bigots erroneously think that we believe being a good person means always cooperating, always extending a hand of friendship to others, even if it’s been slapped away in the past. (In Moore’s specific case, he’s suggesting that even though he’s called being gay sinful, unnatural and destructive, LGBT people should just look past that and forgive him when he’s fallen on hard times.)

But I’m not an exploitable, selflessly cooperating sucker. In the game of morality, I play Tit for Tat. I cooperate with people who are willing to cooperate in turn, which is why I cheerfully scorn the complaints of bigots and other moral free-riders who try to take unfair advantage of me and then say I should be nice to them. It’s better for everyone if that kind of hypocrisy is exposed and punished, in order to steer the cheater back towards an ethic of cooperation. That’s the goal I seek to advance, and that’s why I’m happy to say that I feel no desire to show compassion and kindness towards the intolerant.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Dorfl

    “there’s one simple strategy that consistently beats every competitor.”

    Are you sure about that? I know that tit-for-tat tends to do very well, but I’d like a source for the claim that it can beat every competitor, and do so consistently.

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Tortue du Désert avec un Coupe-Boulon

    Ahh… the intolerance of intolerance is intolerance meme. How fun.

  • Figs

    “No, I’m not a tolerant person. I just want to tell you how to be tolerant.”

  • James Picone

    I’ve seen this expressed before as “I will cooperate iff you will cooperate iff I will cooperate”

  • David Hart

    At the risk of terrible pedantry, I understand that when a prisoner’s dilemma game is played with a certain chance of random errors (i.e. a move being received as ‘defect’ when the player intended to play ‘cooperate’, or vice versa), tit-for-tat does worse than some ‘forgiving’ strategies that will allow their opponent the occasional defection without retaliating, because if two tit-for-tats play, and one accidentally plays ‘defect’, they have no way of getting out of a chain of mutual retaliation. Just like in real life, sometimes people can do harm who intended to do good, and those who cannot forgive an honest mistake cannot share in the benefits of collaboration.

  • http://www.ooblick.com/weblog/ arensb

    @Dorfl: I’m not a game theorist, but the last I heard, there are algorithms that outperform tit-for-tat, but they tend to be complicated. What’s nice about tit-for-tat is that given how simple it is, it performs remarkably well. So if you want to use that to guide moral behavior, it can be summed up as “Be friendly to your friends; be a dick to dicks; forgive repentant dicks.”
    That’s simple enough to internalize, much more so than, say, keeping track of each time every person you interact with has, say, paid less than their share of the restaurant bill, and rolling percentile dice every so often to randomly dick them in some small (or large) way in return.
    At any rate, Adam’s main point seems to be “I’ll play nice with Moore when he starts playing nice with me.”

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com Michael

    According to Moore, God made people with sinful desires so, that, by forgiving them, He could glorify His own name…but somehow this is not selfish. That, I fear, is the very definition of selfish, rising to heights undreamed by most.

  • Elizabeth

    “that’s why I’m happy to say that I feel no desire to show compassion and kindness towards the intolerant.”
    I consider tolerance and compassion/kindness to be two different things. I absolutely don’t tolerate Moore’s opinions about “curing” gay people, but I can still have compassion for the fact that he’s obviously struggling with this issue himself, even if he denies it. Or to put it another way, tolerance I think tends to refer to a response to people’s ideas and actions; kindness cannot be shown to an idea or action, only to the person, so they don’t seem like equivalent things to exchange, though they’re obviously related.

  • Dorfl

    @Arensb

    That’s pretty much how I remember it too. I read ‘The Selfish Gene’ several years ago, and it discussed iterated prisoners’ dilemma a bit. I think tit-for-tat won the first tournament between competing algorithms, but I’ve forgotten how well it did in the second.

    I agree with Adam’s main point. I just thought he overstated how well tit-for-tat does in practice.

  • http://@savoirsavior savoirsavior

    The standard homophobic argument :
    1) My religion says gays are evil (they should be killed according to the OT).
    2) You attack my dogma.
    3) Therefore you are intolerant of religion.

    The same “logic” defended slavery for thousands of years.

  • Anonymous

    Intolerance of evil is instead this other thing called good.

  • Infophile

    @Dorfl: It’s possible for some gimmick algorithms to beat out Tit-for-Tat, but they don’t apply so well to real life. One example is a team who submitted a large number of algorithms to the tournament. For the first few rounds, the algorithms would test each other to see if the other one was submitted by the same team. If they were, one was preprogrammed to always cooperate, and the other to always betray. This lead to the always betraying one to beat out the competition. But really, this isn’t a model for anything in real life; it’s rules-loopholing. Another similar loophole is “Tit for Tat with Sudden Betrayal,” which operates as a Tit for Tat algorithm up until the final round, in which it always betrays, not giving the competitor a chance to betray in kind afterward. Of course, this doesn’t work in real life, as we don’t know when the final round is with anyone (and interactions aren’t one-on-one – others will see this betrayal most likely).

    So no, Tit for Tat doesn’t always win, but that doesn’t imply it isn’t useful in real life. Of course, as David Hart says above, a chance at forgiveness tends to make it work even better (though how big the chance should be depends on the environment it’s playing in).

  • Errant Endeavour

    As mentioned, one phrase that often crops up is ‘you’re intolerant of my religion’. To which I often say ‘good! I see no reason to tolerate hateful and harmful beliefs, and to see them go unchallenged.’ To say that this is the same as saying ‘gays are sinful and should die’ (not an exact quote, though I’ve heard many things along these lines) is absurd on its face, and is a false equivalence. More than that, my (supposed – I’m not convinced that’s the best word for it) intolerance of people saying these things does not infringe on their right to be an arsehole. However, those who do use their dogma to obstruct the progress of equal rights for gays, for blacks, for Jews, for anyone, do infringe upon the rights of others. I think that’s well worth opposing.

  • Gail

    This really isn’t rocket science. Christians like to say that same-sex marriage laws discriminate against their religious beliefs, but not allowing someone to discriminate against others isn’t the same thing as discrimination.

  • Buffy

    I always have Karl Popper ready for those who whine that I’m not tolerating their intolerance:

    “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society… then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them… We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani J. Sharmin

    What Gail wrote above.

    This really isn’t rocket science. Christians like to say that same-sex marriage laws discriminate against their religious beliefs, but not allowing someone to discriminate against others isn’t the same thing as discrimination.

    This really is the whole point summed up.

    The “you’re being intolerant of my intolerance” argument always makes me furious. If you are in favor of equal rights, the people on the other side try to do a little trick to catch you in self-contradiction or hypocrisy. But that’s not what they’ve done. They’ve just shown that they want to take advantage of the good will of others to mistreat them. They try to trick people into being nicer to them by appealing to others’ tolerance; but being in favor of tolerance and equal rights means, almost by definition, that sometimes you have to say something against people who are being intolerant. Otherwise, what’s the point of your tolerant stance in the first place?

  • Reverend Robbie

    There’s no need to bring Prisoner’s Dilemma into any of this. This is simply about the limitations of language. When we say that someone is “intolerant”, we say it as if that’s a negative thing inherently. But the negativity comes from the common usage in which people are intolerant of the wrong things, thereby giving the word “intolerant” an all around negative connotation.

    What’s important is the direct object of the sentence, “I’m intolerant of ________”. If you are intolerant of malaria, then intolerance is a perfectly good thing. If you’re intolerant of interracial marriage, then that’s a bad thing. If you’re intolerant of people’s intolerance for interracial marriage, then there is no paradox; no contradiction. Your intolerance toward their behavior is perfectly justified.

    The whole “You’re a hypocrite because of your intolerance for intolerance” argument then boils down to an amphiboly fallacy (similar to equivocation) caused by leaving out the object of the intolerance.

  • Reverend Robbie

    And then the response from the other side: “By being intolerant of my intolerance for interracial marriage, you’re being intolerant of my religious beliefs, a thing toward which you should always be tolerant.” And this is the real issue. Bigotry yells “base” when it enters the realm of religion.

  • evodevo

    I’ve always loved this Christian Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card (Haggard’s Law! I love it!) . HOW do you KNOW Jesus forgave you for this particular FAIL? Can you do a Jeffrey Dahmer and still be forgiven? Of course! according to them. Then why bother leading a “righteous” life, when you can do whatever you want for years and then get a cop out? The ultimate hypocrisy. Oh, wait, I think Saint Augustine trod this path before us …..http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/425.html

  • smrnda

    Someone once pointed out a difference in tolerance for people and ideas. I can tolerate a person with bigoted or idiotic ideas; however, I’m within my rights to criticize their ideas. If we are to be tolerant towards all people, certain ideas are just going to have to go.

  • Mike

    I’m a little late to the party, but I hope you’re still reading, Adam.

    I’ve noticed that there is a different but closely related tactic that fundamentalists use to attack us. They don’t stop at conflating tolerating intolerance with tolerance, but they often conflate public ridicule with suppression of speech. Frequently we see fundamentalists accuse the secular opposition of “shutting down discussion,” or “silencing,” Christians. This language is at once bizarre and revealing. They fail to admit that the secular movement has won the argument in the public sphere, and instead imply that there is some conspiracy that is somehow preventing them from getting their message out. All at the same time that not a single apologetics website has anything approaching a public forum for comment and most Christian news websites have heavily moderated comment sections.

  • http://Disqus Obliged_Cornball

    When did Matt Moore claim “that Jesus had cured him of homosexuality?” The article you link to suggests that he never claimed to be made “un-gay,” but rather that he says God helped him not to act on his urges.

    Not that this exonerates him for his plea to be tolerant of his intolerance. I just figured I should be clear about what his claims actually are.

  • SJH

    Intolerance often makes assumptions about others and is judgmental. You are making assumptions about their intolerance. They may or may not be wrong about their opinion but that does not give you the right to judge them fit to coexist in a particular sphere. We must take the time to understand each other if we are going to be able to move forward. To say that you will not tolerate intolerance is to say that you know they are being intolerant for malicious reasons and that your view point is absolutely correct. It assumes that the other person has nothing to offer the conversation. This is the problem with modern atheism as well as the internet culture and some Christians. Lets mature past this attitude into one of patience and open-mindedness. Lets be directed by love and compassion and not our hate.

  • SJH

    I think it would be best to base our actions on sound moral judgement rather than games and what we think will help us win the argument. Is your intolerance moral behavior or unhealthy behavior? I want to discern what is right not how to win. I would rather see the truth and loose than be blind and win.

  • Robert

    I tolerate intolerance about ethical differences, such as when an animal rights person calls me a murderer for eating meat. It doesn’t bother me, for I am convinced in my own mind that eating meat is fine. I am strong enough to not let them offend me.

  • GCT

    @SJH

    To say that you will not tolerate intolerance is to say that you know they are being intolerant for malicious reasons and that your view point is absolutely correct. It assumes that the other person has nothing to offer the conversation.

    Whether it’s for malicious reasons or not, I simply will not tolerate bigotry. Why should we?

    This is the problem with modern atheism…

    Excuse me? Yes, I’m sure that a hated minority is to blame here. Nice religious privilege you got going on there.

    Lets mature past this attitude into one of patience and open-mindedness. Lets be directed by love and compassion and not our hate.

    How is it patient or open-minded to say, “Sure, it’s OK if you hate gays/blacks/women/etc”? How is that directed by “love and compassion”? It’s not OK, and that’s because I am not directed by hate. On the contrary, it’s people like you who try to provide cover for bigots that are propagating hate.

    I think it would be best to base our actions on sound moral judgement rather than games and what we think will help us win the argument.

    That swooshing sound was the point going right over your head.

    I want to discern what is right not how to win.

    If that were true, then you would not be arguing that intolerance of bigotry is somehow wrong.

  • Robert

    I don’t consider people that think that I am a murderer for eating meat hateful, or that they hate me. They just have a different moral conviction.

  • GCT

    Considering other people to be less than human for being gay, black, female, atheist, etc. is being hateful, no matter how you slice it.

  • SJH

    @GCT
    Your assumption and judgment is that my objection to homosexual behavior is one of bigotry. A person can love another person even when they disagree. I still love my wife even when I disagree with some of her action.

  • Robert

    True, to consider them “less that human” would be hateful. But, looking at my example, do you think that someone that thinks killing animals is murder is hating me by taking that stance (since I eat animals)? OR what about folks that think all violence is evil, even in self-defence- is that hateful to those that are soldiers?

  • GCT

    I fail to see the relevance of your example.

  • Robert

    Is it morally wrong to disapprove or consider wrong another person’s actions?
    Some examples:
    1: A pacifist believes it wrong to kill.
    2: Some believe it murder to eat meat.
    Are those two people morally wrong in taking such stances? They indict others as being murderers. Are they permitted to have such beliefs in your point of view?

  • GCT

    Is it morally wrong to disapprove or consider wrong another person’s actions?

    No. If that were the case, then it would be morally wrong to claim the KKK are in the wrong.

    Are they permitted to have such beliefs in your point of view?

    Everyone is entitled to whatever beliefs they wish to have. I don’t see anyone claiming any different.

  • Robert

    So at what point is it intolerant?

  • GCT

    Well, at least at the point that someone engages in bigotry, like we’ve seen with homophobes, racists, atheophobes, etc.

  • Robert

    But bigotry goes beyond mere belief that what the other is doing is ethically wrong?

  • GCT

    Bigotry is based on superficial characteristics, like skin color or whether a person has a penis or not, that are largely uncontrollable. People can’t choose to be white, male, heterosexuals. Bigotry would also include the category of attacking atheists as we can’t simply choose to believe in god.

  • Rieux

    GCT:

    Bigotry is based on superficial characteristics….

    I’d say a better adjective (phrase) is “morally irrelevant” rather than “superficial,” or even “controllable.” (If we assume for the sake of argument that homosexuality could be “cured” with a trifling snap-of-the-fingers by anyone who wanted that, homophobia would still be disgusting, wouldn’t it?)

    In my experience (warning: speaker benefits from loads of majority privilege on several axes and therefore may or may not know what the hell he’s talking about), members of many kinds of minorities regard the characteristic(s) that make them minorities as important, deep-seated aspects of their identity. My lone meaningful minority status—my atheism—certainly doesn’t seem superficial to me.

  • Robert

    GCT,
    But are there not differing beliefs about behaviours and their interplay with genetics, for example? That seems like a field that hasn’t been fully understood by science.

  • cipher

    @SJH: I want to discern what is right not how to win. I would rather see the truth and loose than be blind and win.

    Utterly disingenuous. You’re still playing a game, but you don’t see the payoff until the afterlife. You choose a position; whether you choose correctly or incorrectly, in your belief system, the consequences are eternal.

  • GCT

    @Rieux,
    I like your correction, thanks.

    @Robert,
    Tread carefully. Are you suggesting that behaviors have genetic bases and that certain races may be predisposed to certain behaviors?

  • Robert

    There are genetic factors in alcoholism, for example. I never mentioned anything beyond behaviours- YOU did.

  • GCT

    Alcoholism is not a “behavior.”

    And what, pray tell, are you implying? You are the one making the link between behavior and genetic factors in a thread where we’ve been discussing racism. Asking you to clarify your intent is somehow not OK? Why the hell are you still talking anyway? This is way beyond the scope of the OP and really has nothing to do with anything anymore. You might be better off to stop digging if you are indeed starting to find yourself in a proverbial hole.

  • Robert

    That’s your argument? Of course it’s connected to the OP. It’s not that hard!

  • Robert

    GCT,
    OK, I’ll go back and look at the OP. My intuition says that we are within its scope, but I’ll see if you are correct!


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