“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” This thought, articulated by Thomas Jefferson 200 years ago, aligns well with sentiments espoused today. “I don’t care what adults do in their private lives,” says the libertarian. “But listen, buddy,” adds the don’t-tread-on-me conservative, “just don’t shove it in my face.” But does this characteristic attitude of American modernity damn us to spawn a very un-American posterity? Does a misguided tolerance ensure an intolerable future?
Continual tolerance of a thing generally leads to its acceptance. For instance, while we may find ice-age temperatures unpleasant, a civilization experiencing them long enough becomes like the Eskimos in the Arctic and accepts its eternal winter as the new normal. But what of the abnormal? Should it be tolerated?
To answer this question, we must first address moderns’ flawed conception of tolerance. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions”; it should be added that it is also his vice. For tolerance is a virtue only when exercised as is necessary, since it implies a perceived negative. For example, you would have to tolerate an itchy rash or stubborn cold, but you wouldn’t tolerate a fine car or a delectable meal — you relish those things. And while we may admire a man who tolerates suffering with a stiff upper lip, this may turn to contempt if he invites it upon himself with a tolerance for being a doormat; it then seems like weakness of character at best, masochism at worst.
The reality is that being tolerant is only noble in two situations. One is when the thing you are “putting up with” isn’t objectively bad, but you nonetheless dislike it. An example is putting up with broccoli even though you find it distasteful.
The second is when you tolerate something that is actually bad (e.g., foul weather or the flu) because there is nothing you can do to improve the situation.
As for those bad things that can be changed, the virtue lies only in making them history.
There is no better example of what happens when this is forgotten than that of homosexuality. When confronted with homosexual activism, many people will reflexively use the “I don’t care … just don’t shove” line. They will say that homosexuality should be kept, if not in the closet, at least behind closed doors; consume it if you must — just don’t market it. And don’t tell me I’m a bigot for opposing it.
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