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What tolerance means in an open society
Published February 25, 2004

In the last few months, I've seen several letters to the editor addressing tolerance and a sort of slippery slope mentality that extrapolates the idea of tolerance to its illogical extreme. These letters have made the argument that allowing tolerance for people with lifestyles other than what is generally considered the "mainstream" will lead to tolerating all manner of illegal activities. This is very obviously not the case.

First, I hope you'll allow me the assumption that most of these letters are targeted at the homosexual community. I believe one of them specifically mentioned that this was the case, while the other merely implied it. That given, I believe it's important to note that, no matter how offensive homosexuality may be to a particular person, it is not an infringement on other people's rights, nor is it a non-consensual act. There is no right to not be offended, despite what you might think. There is no right to impose your standards of decency on other people; yes, there are laws to that effect, but it is not a right.

Generally speaking, the courts of this land have always held that freedom extends to a person to the degree that it does not impinge upon the freedoms of others. The most famous example of this standard is the case of a man yelling fire in a crowded theater that is not, in fact, on fire. The man can justifiably argue that he is free, under the First Amendment, to say anything he wants; the counter-argument is that, if there is no fire, the man in endangering the lives of people who might panic and stampede in the crowded theater, for no good reason. In this instance, the Supreme Court has ruled that the rights of the other people in the theater outweigh the man's freedom of speech; he is liable for his words and their consequences.

How does this bear on homosexuality, gays and lesbians? Homosexuals practice consensual sex. There is no coercion involved, just two consenting adults who happen to be the same sex. No one's rights are being violated by this act; the Supreme Court has just recently ruled that the government has no right to invade private bedrooms unless consent is an issue. But what about the examples of "tolerance" provided by our letter writers?

Driving on the wrong side of the road has nothing to do with tolerance. It's criminal endangerment. Bestiality is abuse of animals, who can hardly be considered consenting. Pedophilia is rape of a particularly ugly kind; courts and common sense have determined that no one under the age of 18 can truly give consent to an adult; there is always some amount of coercion. None of these things have anything to do with consent, nor with tolerance. They also have nothing to do with homosexuality; before you write in to tell me, yes, I know there are cases of homosexual rape. I can safely say that they are far outweighed by heterosexual rapes, and that neither is representative of the population as a whole.

Tolerance does not require us to witness a murder and shrug and turn the other way. It doesn't actually require us to do anything at all. Tolerance is an idea, the concept that people should be allowed freedom to the degree that they do not infringe on others' freedoms and rights. Tolerance is the concept that people are different, and that we should embrace those differences. It is not a license for criminal activity, and it is not blind. I can tolerate Jews and Latinos and gays without having any sympathy for rapists, murderers and bullies.

Those who would argue otherwise are doing themselves a great disservice. Bigotry breeds hatred, and there's no guarantee that that hatred won't come back the other way sometime down the road. Intolerance is largely responsible for the extremism that has lead to a cycle of violence in countries around the world. That is not the way we do things in America. America is about defending differences, about protecting minorities and standing up for the downtrodden.