I Have the Right To Be A Bigot!

By Graham Peterson

Yes, you do, as far as the United States Government is concerned — and that’s an incredibly important constitutional protection.  But I believe, as do most of my fellow social liberals, that encouraging tolerance and open debate is a good thing.

But informal tolerance is different from formal tolerance, your first amendment protection of speech.  Zach Ford at ThinkProgress got the point exactly right, when he blasted social conservatives about their defense of the Duck Dynasty guy’s comments.  Andy Perrin gets it right over at Scatterplot, too.  The refrain emerging from social conservatives that liberals need to tolerate intolerance is dumb.

Do I agree that my beautiful and inspired friends on the left are intolerant of things they shouldn’t be?  You bet.  I think a lot of people are intolerant of things they shouldn’t be.  Do liberals have a greater tendency to seek recourse to arguments they don’t like by leveraging official bureaucratic channels?  You bet.  That’s troubling, and it’s something we in a free society can argue over, hopefully reifying our collective belief in tolerance of speech.

But the demands of social conservatives that liberals tolerate intolerance itself, are nonsense.  The question, “does tolerance require one to be tolerant of intolerance,” is a logical absurdity, not a clever tu quoque fallacy to be leveled at social liberals in service of promoting or defending bigotry.  It’s just like the omnipotence paradox in philosophy: “can God create a stone that is so heavy he can’t lift it?”  If you accept that a premise, and its negation, are both true, then sure, you’ve got a logical contradiction before you even try to imply a conclusion.

And that might seem like a neat way to make your opponent look silly, but in the world of deductive logic, you either subscribe to tolerance, or you subscribe to intolerance, not both.  Now, humans are full of logical contradictions, so they’re not hard for a reasonably clever person to find – but it’s a trivial argument because everyone maintains degrees of mutual inconsistencies in their beliefs.

The argument here then, since we are all both tolerant and intolerant, is over whether we should attempt to become more tolerant, or less.

That’s a fight that social conservatives are losing badly, and will continue to.  Social conservatives are upset about the efforts of social liberals to redefine social taboos and guidelines, calling it “political correctness.” But social conservatives do the same thing — they just call it “politeness.”  The only difference is that social liberals are attempting to actively reconstruct social norms, and conservatives are attempting to actively maintain established norms.  Both want dominant norms.  Reasonable people can disagree over what those norms ought to be without blasting the other side for wanting norms in the first place.

In my view, social liberals win all day with a philosophy that says groups ought to be allowed their little version of politeness or political correctness as long as they don’t coerce others into subscribing to their beliefs with threats of violence.  And that’s what first amendment rights to speech prevent.  Let the firings, screaming, and reasoned persuasion continue.

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