During the past few weeks, the word “intolerant” has been flung in my face more times than I care to recount (though this isn’t the first occasion, and unless I die imminently, it surely won’t be the last). There’s a sensitive issue being voted upon today, and the related controversy has been rampant for months. For purposes of this blog, the issue itself is (nearly) irrelevant, so I’ll thank everyone to refrain from debating it here. What fascinates me is the capricious manner in which “intolerant” is being launched in rapid-fire sequence lately, and more particularly, how and by whom.
If a man states that he is “lactose intolerant,” would you call him unreasonable? Or if a teacher claims she is “intolerant” of any violence in her classroom – would she be considered unfair? We don’t condemn a person for his body’s unfortunate condition, and we’re likely to applaud the teacher for her ethical resolve. Yet when the word is describing people who feel a certain way about politics, religion, etc., “intolerant” becomes a chastisement carrying the same vehement severity associated with the words “bigot” or “racist.” Cue the definitions, please. In looking up the word “intolerant,” we find an intriguing conundrum created by two clauses: (a) unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression, especially in religious matters; (b) unwilling to grant or share social, political or professional rights. The first clause depicts a denial of free speech, especially concerning religion, and the second describes a refusal to afford socio-political rights to everyone equally. Does anyone else notice an impending head-on collision? By way of example only, I will use the current aforementioned “sensitive issue” to explain myself.
As I said initially, I have been labeled “intolerant” recently because I favor a state constitutional amendment which would define marriage as only between one man and one woman. This bill would not simply ban same-sex marriages within the state, but would also reject the “domestic partnership” status of un-married couples who live together. I’ve not been on street corners holding signs or distributing propaganda, nor have I been cornering friends and acquaintances – whom I expect to disagree with me – for impromptu debates. No, each encounter resulting in my unseemly label began with me minding my own business but honestly answering the question when put to me. They (my opponents) accused me of unfairly refusing equal rights (marriage and/or its accompanying benefits) to homosexuals and domestic partners, and several went so far as to curse me. Because I am not merely a Christian but rather first and foremost such, it is my political views that are influenced and formed by my faith – never the other way round. Therefore, I go against the grain on many political topics where I seemingly single out lifestyles or groups or practices and deem them unacceptable based on scripture, but in truth, I do this neither arbitrarily nor casually nor with malice. As a Christian, I believe the Bible clearly forbids homosexuality and fornication. I also believe that as the creator of marriage, God alone reserves the right to set its requirements and restrictions. I don’t dislike gay people or heterosexual domestic partners – but I don’t condone their lifestyle and I don’t believe that they possess any legal or inherent “right” to be married. Opponents may disagree, but I am exercising my expressly granted right to freedom of speech as it pertains to my religion…which brings me to the second half of the definition. I am confronted with a question that, in the opponent’s eyes, has but one possible answer; when I frankly reply differently, citing my religious freedom of expression, he raises his voice and calls me names. Yet according to the first clause of the definition, he is, in fact, the one being “intolerant!” And there we have the head-on collision.
Of all the times I’ve heard the word pointedly uttered, I can recall two distinct contexts: the criticism of Christians who refuse to equate the beliefs of other religions to their own, and the criticism of those (frequently Christians, but never persons professing any other religion) who disagree with touchy social/political topics, such as abortion, welfare or homosexuality. Interestingly, I cannot remember one single instance where a Christian fired back at an accuser for denying his right to freedom of religious expression. Since the definition clauses are contradictory in nature, the outcome must go to extremes. Both sides can freely (and liberally) hurl nastiness about like stinky mudpies, or the word should be nearly obsolete. I prefer the latter, because the term itself is incompatible with the freedom of speech, which is at its very core the right to offend and to be offended – happy, friendly speech doesn’t need legal protection, folks!! Bear readily in mind that your name-calling is as intolerant of your target’s rights as his beliefs could possibly be of yours. Therefore, you can civilly debate a certain stance and even ultimately disagree, but if differing opinions tempt you to spout buzz words, you need a refresher on the breadth of protected freedoms and perhaps on good, old-fashioned manners! Or would you rather all of society simultaneously invoke its right to pervasive, childish rudeness?
I imagine a majority of heated tempers and harsh words arise out of a lack of understanding or failure to consider other perspectives. Now, I don’t suggest that you hold your views as any less right or the views of others as any less wrong: personal conviction should be strong and decisive, or it’s nothing more than a whimsical choosing of the popular side. But you must be willing to accept that others feel as passionately about their beliefs as you do about yours. You also must distinguish actual ignorance from that which you simply do not comprehend. Picture an impudent young teen in the Louvre, listening to his iPod and thinking how absolutely stupid the place is. He might well be called ignorant for his sheer immaturity and arrogance, and though he may never come to appreciate fine art (I admittedly do not), he will likely at least come to recognize the value it holds for others. So be devout in your faith, learned in your religion, staunch in your convictions…but kind in your disagreements and reticent in anything except the civilized debate of substantive issues. Unfettered free speech and harmony cannot otherwise co-exist.