Monday, December 14, 2009

Tolerating Intolerance

The other day, while driving on the freeway, I found myself behind a truck with a bumper sticker on its rear windshield that depicted the outline of the United States filled in with the colors of the American flag. The caption read "Speak English, or get the f*** out!"

I'll be blunt. Reading statements like this makes me extremely angry. In a world with no consequences, I can pretty easily imagine myself hitting the gas pedal to ram the truck from behind to express my displeasure. I'd like to think that I refrain from such actions at least as much "because I know it's wrong" as I do from the fact that my little car would no doubt sustain more damage than the truck would in such an altercation. But if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure I'd do "the right thing" if I knew I could get away with it.

Of course, I'm assuming that "the right thing" is to allow the person with the hateful statement on his rear windshield to continue his day unmolested. But as I think through the issues that such a bigoted sticker raises, I find that I'm actually not entirely clear on how I would answer the question "what would Jesus do?" After all, the same Jesus that said "turn the other cheek" also created quite a scene by turning over the tables of the moneylenders at the temple. Whatever else is true, it seems clear that motives of anger aren't what make actions wrong, but that context matters.

That's not to say that I think Jesus would have plowed his car into the back of a truck with a racist bumper sticker in the window. I can't help but think that he'd have done something more constructive. But what?

There's a bit of angry nonsense I sometimes hear some people say: "You ____s (fill in the label of your choice) can tolerate anything except intolerance."  I call it "nonsense" because it is.  By definition, anyone who advocates "tolerance" would have to be annoyed by "intolerant" attitudes.  How could a person "tolerate intolerance" and continue to advocate for tolerance?

Yet, do we even have a choice?  However much we might fight against intolerance when and where we can, there's always more intolerance out there.  The growing cultural divide is clear evidence of this.  Intolerance seems to be akin to the mythical hydra that regrows two new heads whenever one is chopped off.  At the very least, if one doesn't battle the monster wisely, it's obvious that a person choosing to fight intolerance can do at least as much harm as good.

But that doesn't mean I was glad to see that truck with the intolerant message continue down the road unchallenged.

1 comment:

  1. This is a poignant post, the only possible option it to publicly and intelligently debate such things. However the bumper sticker clad truck driver would likely not understand!



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