Why we need to quit whining about “tolerance” re: the boycott.

I’ve just started reading In the Garden of Beasts, a portrait of Nazism from the point of view of the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, as his family weaves in and out of Nazi high society in Berlin and gradually discovers the true character of their glamorous and impressive new friends.

I haven’t made it very far, but already I’m struck with how complex, how uncertain everything seemed at the time–just the way it seems today. Most Americans, in a sincere effort to be objective, gave Nazi lies and euphemisms as much credence as the horror stories they heard from other sources. Everyone wanted to be mature and reasonable, not swayed by inflammatory stories.

That’s my instinctive response to most of the issues that divide the country today; but I’m starting to realize that, for many of these controversies, there may not be a middle way–or if there is, it might be as morally reprehensible as turning a blind eye to Nazi thuggery in the 1930s.

My last post started a conversation with an old friend in which he said, “I don’t understand why we can’t just accept and respect people’s beliefs regardless of similarities or differences”–and, I would respectfully answer in two words:

Ideas Matter.

Ideas have consequences; and your willingness to tolerate another person’s ideas depends on whether you’re willing to tolerate the consequences. For all our talk of freedom of conscience and expression, there are certain things that we as a society won’t stand for–nor should we.

Pedophilia advocacy falls comfortably within this category, along with “pro-ana” sites that encourage and enable eating disorders, or the practice of murdering your daughters when they “dishonor” the family by wearing Western clothes or pursuing an education. We permit people to believe and propagate these ideas with impunity–but the very idea that they exist is repulsive to us, and we use every possible legal means to stamp them out.

Unconditional tolerance would be a lousy idea even if it were possible; in the real world, societies decide where they must insist on orthodoxy (age-of-consent laws, honor-killings, etc.), and where they can make room for differences of opinion (the divinity of Christ, constitutional interpretation, fantasy football). The problem is that our increasingly divergent worldviews give us a radically different list of things we have to insist on.

That’s why the  Chick-Fil-A boycott (and the issue of gay rights in general) has engendered such intense feelings–it’s a place where the gears of our society are grinding, because we can neither agree, nor tolerate disagreement. That’s why politicians in Chicago and Boston have started using the organs of state power to turn the screws on Chick-Fil-A–because the constituency that elects them has finally placed conservative Christian ideas about marriage and morality firmly in the realm of the repugnant and unacceptable.

As troubling as this is to me, I get it. Dan Cathy is a powerful booster for a heteronormative, patriarchal, monogamous society–and if you don’t fit within the confines of that society, Dan Cathy is serious bad news. He is creating a world in which more people view queer sexual behavior with disgust and contempt–and whether he intends it or not, violence is never far behind.

As they see it, his ideas validate and encourage the daily schoolyard cruelty that drives many gay teens to suicide. His ideas keep people from visiting sick partners and children in the hospital, because the government does not recognize their families. His ideas inspire the imprisonment and execution of innocent people in Africa and the Middle East. None of this would happen in a world without those ideas–so those ideas have to go–whether by persuasion, or financial sanctions, or state intervention.

That’s why the boycotters don’t mind being intolerant of his ideas. Tolerance of evil is no virtue. There is no such thing as “neutrality” when you witness oppression. If they’re right about the way the world works, then they have a moral duty to oppose the conservative Christian notion of marriage, and no one should expect anything less of them.

On the other hand, the secular liberal paradigm on which all of that rests is also an idea with consequences. If you believe (as I believe) that gender matters in an eternal, spiritual sense, then this rising tide of animosity toward heteronormativity will see you marginalized, labeled, and despised for holding a view that was basically the consensus opinion ten years ago.

I believe that sexual union between man and woman is sacramental, and that children deserve a mom and dad who love and honor one another. I believe that fathers and mothers are fundamentally different, and that kids need both. Of course, that ideal was shattered long before gay marriage had even entered the national discourse by divorce, adultery, abuse, premarital sex, loveless marriages–but I still believe in the ideal.

Having said that, I also support full legal equality for gay couples. By way of analogy, most people would agree that divorce and single parenting are not ideal for anyone concerned–but it would be asinine and cruel to legally censure divorcees and single parents. Life isn’t perfect. People need the liberty to make their own choices.

I would like to believe that this puts me on the “right” side of this debate, but given the contempt and loathing people seem to have for the beliefs I’ve described, I suspect that supporting legal equality will not be enough. The very idea that God or gender are relevant to sexual morality, seems to be right up there with Aztec blood sacrifice and public school segregation on people’s list of shit they will no longer put up with.  The ideological wave that is carrying this movement along will not be kind to people like me.

Of course, it’s different for mainstream Christians than it is for Mormons. Protestants are used to being the gatekeepers of moral acceptability–that’s probably why they’re so shocked at the venom directed against a good, wholesome Christian company like Chick-Fil-A. The prospect of being misquoted, misunderstood, and disenfranchised is alien to them; we’ve had some time to get used to it.

As far as the political consequences, though, the outlook is even more troubling. Marriage is not the sort of thing we can just dodge by leaving it to the states–you can’t be married in Iowa, and divorced as soon as you cross into Missouri. That means that Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia are going to have gay marriage sooner or later, no matter how fiercely they dig in. And most of American history could be summed up as “The horrible crap that went down when we tried to make the South do stuff the South didn’t feel like doing”.

Here’s hoping it turns out more “1960s” than “1860s”.

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