Everyone claims to favor tolerance. And they do.
Unfortunately, the tolerance they favor is only for them, and for ideas of which they approve. Anyone or anything they don’t like is fair game to be vilified and suppressed.
I don’t want to beat up on any particular group of people, though some seem more hypocritical and intolerant than others. The real problem is human nature.
We all have our own narrow viewpoints. We tend to believe that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong. And since our biological nature evolved in conditions vastly different from those today, we often react to disagreement as if it were a threat to our physical safety. Our nervous system lights up like a Christmas tree. Adrenaline pours into our bloodstream. Our heartbeat quickens. Our circulatory system diverts oxygen from our brains to our muscles.
We are ready to fight or flee, depending on how we evaluate the danger from what suddenly seems like a mortal enemy.
And all he said was, “The Bruins might lose to Notre Dame this time.”
There are certain things that intolerant people — that is, most people most of the time, and almost all of us some of the time — never say. Here are a few of them.
“I might be wrong.”
“I might be wrong” simply recognizes that we don’t know everything and our judgment isn’t perfect. When we’re absolutely certain of our own rightness, we often feel entitled to persecute those who disagree or who act contrary to our belief.
“I might be wrong” is not the same as saying “I am wrong now,” “I am usually wrong,” or “There’s no right or wrong opinion.” We can stand by our beliefs. Sometimes we are right, and there often is a correct opinion. But we are blindly arrogant if we deny that maybe, possibly, sometimes, we might be wrong and the other people might be right.
We should be especially suspicious of beliefs that we want to be true, that give us money and status, or that fit what we already believe. In those cases especially, we are biased and we might be wrong.
“It’s none of my business.”
The American writer H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.” Most things that other people do are none of our business.
If someone wants to have a hundred body piercings, I will think (but not say) that he or she is nuts; but I won’t try to stop it, nor will I claim that I have any right to do so. As long as they don’t harm others, what people do with their own bodies is none of my business unless they’re a close family relation of mine. Even then, the decision usually must be left up to them.
There are borderline cases, of course, and practicality is sometimes an issue. I don’t approve of how Islamic countries treat women, nor of the barbaric punishments they inflict for minor crimes and even for non-crimes. On the other hand, I don’t live in an Islamic country, so I am not required to oppose those things as I would if they happened in my own country, nor do I have any power to stop them even if I did oppose them. For all practical purposes, they are none of my business.
The Constitution of the United States originally took the same approach. Apart from basic rights and issues that affected the whole country, it left most decisions to state and local governments. That prevented the kind of bitter disputes we see today, since there’s no way to reach a national consensus on some moral issues. But the U.S. national government is now controlled by people who never think that they might be wrong, so they think that everything is their business. That is, by the way, a textbook example of a totalitarian government.
“What’s the harm?”
When people do things we don’t like, we unconsciously start looking for reasons to stop them from doing what we don’t like. Unsurprisingly, we find them.
That kind of moral rationalization is familiar to psychologists. Researcher Jonathan Haidt told people stories that were morally troubling but in which no one suffered harm, such as a morgue attendant taking home choice cuts to cook for dinner. When the people condemned the actions, Haidt challenged them to justify the condemnation:
“The biggest surprise was that so many subjects tried to invent victims. I had written the stories carefully to remove all conceivable harm to other people, yet in 38 percent of the 1,620 times that people heard a harmless-offensive story, they claimed that somebody was harmed … Most of these supposed harms were post hoc fabrications. People usually condemned the actions very quickly. But it often took them a while to come up with a victim …”1
That kind of post hoc rationalization was on display after a recent disruption at DePaul University. Conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos was giving a speech in which he challenged a variety of leftist ideas. Several people disagreed, so they disrupted the event and took over the stage while campus security guards did nothing. The ringleader of the disruption later said that Yiannopoulos’s opinions “threatened his safety” — i.e., he fabricated harm to justify his actions.
“Would my actions cause greater harm?”
Stealing is wrong. It causes harm. In Saudi Arabia, the punishment is to have your hand cut off. What’s wrong with that picture?
What’s wrong is that the punishment causes vastly greater harm than the crime itself.
Likewise, suppose that some people do things of which we don’t approve and, unlike at DePaul, they cause a small amount of real harm. Does that entitle us to threaten them, slander them, and burn down their houses? It might prevent repetition of their harmful acts, but we would be guilty of causing far greater harm than people we “punished.” We want to have our gay wedding cake and sue it, too.
“Why do they believe that?”
This is last because it’s arguably the most difficult. Other people’s ideas, psychology, values, and behavior have been influenced by their life histories. We don’t know what experiences led them to think and act as they do. It’s very difficult for us to put ourselves in their place and imagine how the world looks to them. It’s even more difficult to imagine how they feel about situations.
In a way, this is the converse of “I might be wrong.” Just as our viewpoints have been shaped by our experiences, their viewpoints have been shaped by theirs. Even if they are wrong, we should do our best to understand why they think they’re right.
In peaceful situations, it’s the moral thing to do. In violent situations, such as repeated terrorist attacks, it’s a practical thing to do. If we understand people, their viewpoints, motives, hurts, and fears, we can deal with them better, more fairly and effectively.
So the next time you encounter disagreement, don’t just get emotional and start yelling. Stop and think:
- Could you be wrong?
- Is it any of your business anyway?
- What’s the harm?
- Would you cause greater harm?
- Why do they believe that?
Haidt, J. (2012), The Righteous Mind. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Haidt, J. (2012), p. 28. ↩