Can society be tolerant of the intolerant?

don't tolerate intoleranceAs a journalist, I make value judgments every day in my writing and reporting. For instance, “John Smith” is a good source, in my opinion, so I will cite him in my recent story on “bananas.” And that report from the XYZ agency’s inspector general is solid so it also deserves a reference. These are generally snap judgments made throughout any day and most of it is so instinctive, little thought goes into them.

Things get a bit tricky when it comes to moral judgments. At all costs I try to keep my own moral judgments out of my articles. This is easy for me because my subjects rarely relate to anything inherently moral.

But the subject is morality in this Los Angeles Times article by Stephanie Simon, who we’ve given much deserved praise in the past. The story is about a lawsuit for the “Right Not to Tolerate Policies.” Check out the lead:

ATLANTA — Ruth Malhotra went to court last month for the right to be intolerant.

Malhotra says her Christian faith compels her to speak out against homosexuality. But the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she’s a senior, bans speech that puts down others because of their sexual orientation.

Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. So she’s demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy.

So is Malhotra seeking the right to be intolerant, or the right to speak out against homosexuality? We’re talking about two separate moral philosophies and two separate value judgments. Can both exist at the same time? That depends on your point of view. I think we know what Simon thinks from the lead, and that’s too bad from a journalistic perspective.

Overall, it’s a well reported article, but Simon missed a subtle distinction that required a “for the record” update involving one of her sources that shows how complex this issue can be and how a journalist must leave all preconceptions behind.

The editorial page of the Times stepped in with an exceptional op/ed piece on the issue (lest any of you have concerns that the Times‘ editorial influenced Simon’s reporting, I can guarantee there is a giant wall between the editorial page and the newsroom):

It isn’t necessary — or even desirable — to protect gay students, Christian students or any other types of students from opinions they find hurtful. Indeed, the civil exchange of competing views is part of the purpose of higher education. Colleges have the right to protect students from harassment, but they must be careful not to trample on the 1st Amendment rights of other students.

How does that statement compare with the presumptions in Simon’s lead? Is it intolerant to oppose another person’s conduct, or is that just another way of expressing religious beliefs?

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  • c.tower

    The problem with intolerance is it never stops at the purely theoretical.Anyone who publically declares themselves opposed to (in this case) homosexuality is not just politely disagreeing- they want to make sure gays don’t have the same rights to get married or adopt children or live their lives freely that heterosexuals do.Why is this considered more acceptable than racism or anti-semitism? (if you’re going to claim that homosexuality is a “chosen behavior”, I got news for you-NOBODY BELIEVES THAT.Unless you expect me to believe that Fred Phelps spends all his time “choosing” NOT to be gay… although, in HIS case, that would explain a lot. And, hey, even if it IS a choice…SO’S YOUR RELIGION.I mean that seriously, too; when what your church tells you flies in the face of common sense and humanity, it’s your DUTY to question it.And if anyone is offended by my saying that…what makes you think I’m talking about YOU?

  • tmatt

    C. tower:

    Actually, the hard part is trying to legislate laws that affect what Kinsey said he found and others since — a spectrum of behaviors with many people often changing their behaviors to different degrees at different parts of their lives. And then there is the bisexuality issue, which flows right out of Kinsey’s conclusions. What will courts do with that?

    And, yes, there are millions of people who believe that this spectrum of human sexuality does involve choices and a still undefined mixture of nature and nurture. Your views appear to be the opposite side of the coin as the fundamentalists of the right.

    The press is going to have to cover both sides of this debate fairly and accurately.

    As for religion, that is a matter of constitutional rights — as set by the founders. You may need to get used to that.

  • tmatt

    Oh, what is true tolerance?

    That is when one extends freedom of speech to those with whom you disagree — to the point of believing they are eternally wrong. So evangelism is not intolerant, if it is backed with a fierce commitment to protecting the other’s right to worship and to counter-evangelize.

    This is a major flash point right now in the clashes between Islam and the West. Muslims have the right to evangelize in the U.S., as well they should. Do Christians have the right to evangelize in, oh, Saudi Arabia?

    Or, in this Times report, gay rights groups have free speech on these campuses. Do the groups that oppose gay rights?

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “That is when one extends freedom of speech to those with whom you disagree…”

    Is this really a freedom of speech issue, or is it the case of someone who wants to open a door to rolling back official tolerance of homosexual lifestyles? Is “free speech” a red herring here?

    What does “free speech” mean in the context of this school? Are there no avenues for speech or meetings at this campus, or just not the ones she wants?

    What are the limits of free speech? Who gets to decide when free speech becomes harrasment?

  • dk

    All judgements are moral and value judgments. The “good source” judgment is not a separate category.

  • Clay Anderson


    I would agree with you that the agenda of lawsuits such as this may be to open the door to revising (or perhaps reversing) legislation regarding homosexuality.

    But that doesn’t make free speech a red herring, nor does it invalidate the lawsuit.

    Legislation arises out of debate of the issues. If debate is silenced, then legislation is dictated by those doing the silencing. Free speech is a crucial element in our legislative process. Those denied free speech are denied their right to support, question, or dispute our legislation.

    But on the other side of the coin, this means that if debate never results in some measure of action, legislative or otherwise, it is meaningless. The pro-homosexual camp seems to fear this, and is generally unwilling to participate in open discussion of the issue. They defend their hard-won turf with the very weapon they would deny to the right: intolerance.

    Need evidence of such? See C. Tower’s comment above, where he/she makes unsupported blanket statements about others’ beliefs. Or if you really want to see intolerance in action, read Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Slezak’s open letter to American Idol contestant Mandisa, who in an interview with The Advocate indicated that she could not support the gay lifestyle. Slezak was downright irrational in his vitriol.

    So instead of “intolerance”, perhaps the most despised trait should be “hypocrisy”.

    Granted, this label would apply to both sides, as the conservative right has its share of hypocrites. But to paint us all with the Fred Phelps brush is unfair and inaccurate. Most Christians I know are level-headed and compassionate in how they address homosexuality. However, this doesn’t mean they support it.

    A word needs to be said here regarding homosexuality as a “chosen behavior”. Firstly, all behaviors (of mentally healthy individuals) are chosen. We are innately aware that behavior can be controlled; observe education, parental discipline, and law enforcement.

    The real question is whether homosexuality is a “chosen mindset”, or a “chosen desire”. I would sincerely doubt that it ever is. And just as I cannot imagine being attracted to my own gender, so I can imagine the struggle of those with homosexual desires.

    But this brings us to the crucial question: are all human desires legitimate, proper, and worthy of validating?

    In my mind, it’s not difficult to determine that many human desires are not; many are unhealthy, destructive, even dangerous. Sometimes these desires emerge from painful experiences in our lives, othertimes they are inborn within us.

    In either case, the Bible has a word for such desires: sin. According to the Bible, we are all born into sin, and are utterly unable to resist it. But that’s the entire message of the Gospel: Jesus setting man free from his sin.

    Back to the lawsuit: Malhotra believes, as do many Christians, that homosexual desire is a sinful desire, but that Jesus offers freedom. And that’s what she wants the freedom to discuss openly, even with those who disagree with her. She is not advocating hate, harrassment, nor even judgment, but a different perspective.

    Can we grant her that?

  • Fr. Raphael

    Jerusalem, 6 Century BC
    Inside sources in both Government and Temple today revealed that both civil and religious leadership have been served with a major lawsuit brought against them by the self-proclaimed prophet Jeremiah Hilkiahson. Named in the lawsuit are the High Priest and the King and members of the council, in addition to the temple School of Prophets. The so-called prophet claims to have been unfairly and harshly treated following his actions, the wearing of an iron yoke as he paraded around downtown Jerusalem criticizing the Temple and government’s policies and inflaming public opinion. A source close to the High Priest, an expert in 8th Century pseudo-prophetic literature, noted that Hilkiahson was merely doing what “self-professed prophets have always done, stirring up the general citizenry with vapid fear-mongering,” although he added that Hilkiahson’s recent publicity stunts have upped the ante. Local leader Gedaliah Pashurson, has been one of the most vocal opponents of Hilkiahson. “He ought to be strung up,” he declared, “because of the way his words and actions are harming the morale of the soldiers guarding Jerusalem.” Claiming that police beat him, imprisoned him without a trial and trampled on his civil liberties, Hilkiahson merely wants justice and the right to express his God-given right to free speech, said Hilkiahson spokesperson and personal secretary, Baruch, who declared, “The Peophet Jeremiah, who has been called by the Lord of lords and God of gods to this ministry, merely wants the same rights which are allowed those he disagrees with.” . . . . .

    There just isn’t anything new under the sun. I’d love to see someone address the issue of when freedom of expression is harassment and when it’s not. Does the answer have anything to who’s the current flavour of the month? Those who are in power? Or is there a more objective standard?

  • Daniel

    It does seem significant that Malhotra wrote the offensive letter not as a Christian or as a member of a campus religious group, but as a member of the College Republicans. So is her intolerant speech–and yes, it’s intolterant based on what is described in the article–religious speech cloaked in some sort of “get out of jail free because I’m a Christian” protection or is it more insidisous?

  • Mollie

    I was sad that Stephanie Simon didn’t get a Pulitzer for her excellent abortion-related coverage.

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  • c.tower

    I maintain: there is NO difference between those who would deny homosexuals their rights on “religious” grounds and these who who considered blacks and women inferior(they had a tendency to evoke God, too).I never advocated restricting restricting freedom of speech; in fact, I’m a pretty hard core advocate of it- and yes, I WOULD side with this woman if I were on a jury. But just because someone claims their following their religious beliefs doesn’t mean I’m going to give them the moral high ground. I’m going to call them on it… which is of course what a forum like this is about.

  • Daniel

    Actually, the hard part is trying to legislate laws that affect what Kinsey said he found and others since — a spectrum of behaviors with many people often changing their behaviors to different degrees at different parts of their lives. And then there is the bisexuality issue, which flows right out of Kinsey’s conclusions. What will courts do with that?

    Actually, the same thing they do with religion, which is not innate. They provide protection, as the can do for familial status, disability (which can move back and forth from ADA protection based on the level of mitgation or seriousness) or even gender.

    When somebody changes from being a Southern Baptist to Orthodox, for instance, they don’t lose their protected status, even if they change it very day.

    In truth, the courts have little problem enforcing sexual orientation discrimination laws or even due process protection under state law. The ability to allegedly “change” has been of little consequence to the courts.

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