The Trouble With Tolerance

They came in the mail again, even though I never ordered them: those personal address labels that say, “Teach Tolerance.” You know, the ones sent out by the Southern Poverty Law Center: America’s favorite civil rights organization. You know, the one run by Morris Dees: America’s favorite crusader for, well, tolerance; which, in turn, is America’s favorite word because it commits us to nothing and means nothing, or at least so little that virtually all can rally under its banner.

Tolerance. Something to be taught, and apparently bought, via donations to a certain organization, with their large security-conscious building, and their multi-million dollar lawsuits against Klansmen and skinheads, and their endowment (did I mention their endowment?) now worth approximately $100 million dollars.

That’s right: $100 million, in the bank, collecting more interest in a month than most families make in a decade. Think about that the next time they send you a mailing asking for cash so they can “continue their work,” and hurry! Didn’t you hear? Tom Metzger has threatened to kill Dees, and they need your donation so they can hire one of those police officers they’ve trained to be “tolerant” to guard their physical plant from the Michigan Militia or something. And people wonder why I laugh whenever I’m asked whether I know Saint Morris of Montgomery.

Yeah, I know him. I know him as the guy who sent out a fundraising appeal in 1990 implying he was going to crusade against David Duke in Louisiana, and proceeded to spend zero dollars and even less time doing it. I know him as the titular head of an organization that takes very few poverty law cases at all (as one might foolishly infer from their name), because they’re so busy chasing high-profile bigots in the name of tolerance.

So what is tolerance anyway? As I see it, tolerance means I don’t burn your church down, or tie you to a fence and leave you to die, or drag you down a dirt road behind my pickup. It means I tolerate your existence and little else. I let you live and breathe for another day. How nice of me. But it doesn’t mean I’m expected to fight loan discrimination against people of color by bank officials (unless it turns out they burn crosses on their lunch hour, of course); and it doesn’t mean I’m expected to speak out against police brutality, or unequal health care, or the racialized spiral of incarceration, or tracking in the schools, or unequal funding between poor districts teaching students of color and suburban districts serving white kids.

And if I’m the parent of one of those white kids, it doesn’t mean I have to think about my own role in someone else’s oppression. I just need to put an “Erase the Hate” bumper sticker on my Volvo, next to the one that reads, “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Beauty,” and everything will be O.K., even as my comfortable existence comes at the direct expense of the persons of color who are kept in neighborhoods and schools far from me and mine. Emphasizing tolerance will focus one’s attention on overt hostility, perhaps, but do nothing to address the institutional forms of racism that kill people every day, just as perniciously as any member of the Aryan Nations.

As with race, so too with religion: Tolerance might well preclude me from criticizing churches for their “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra vis-a-vis gays and lesbians. After all, isn’t that mantra the very essence of tolerance? Just because these folks think and teach their children that gays and lesbians are going to hell, doesn’t mean they’re implicated in gay bashing! Heavens no! To even imply such a thing would demonstrate one’s intolerance of fundamentalists; as would, I suppose, mentioning that evangelical Christianity is, by definition, intolerant, as per its desire to convert all non-Christians so as to “win the world for Christ”– an act of spiritual genocide against other faiths or the faithless to be sure. Yet, to even say this makes one “intolerant,” in which case, perhaps we need a little less tolerance and a lot more truth.

As a Jew, let me make it clear: what I need is not tolerance, because all that means is that you’ll smile and insist you love me as you tell me my soul is in jeopardy. Frankly, I don’t want your love. I want you off my ass, and I want you to check your arrogance, and no, I don’t think you have a right to teach that shit to your kids — or at least, not an exclusive right — seeing as how me and a lot of my non-Gentile and non-hetero friends are going to have to deal with your kids out in the real world someday.

Likewise, people of color don’t want tolerance, they want justice. And sometimes getting the latter requires sacrificing the former, since, if one’s watchword is tolerance, it could become far too easy to begin tolerating injustice. Too easy to resist raising one’s voice against the prevailing mentality of white superiority which pervades our culture, because one must be “understanding” and less “judgmental,” and “tolerate differences”–perhaps even those that destroy lives.

To “teach tolerance,” risks inculcating the mentality that every idea is equally worthy of attention, and that’s bullshit: The Bell Curve is not worthwhile, and it deserves to be ridiculed, not “tolerated” as just another contribution to the marketplace of ideas. Folks who say the Holocaust never happened merit derision, not ad space in college newspapers. Those who insist slavery in the U.S. “wasn’t racist” (D’Souza), or that blacks suffer from a “civilizational gap” (also D’Souza), or that Jim Crow laws were only meant to “protect blacks” (guess who?), deserve to be treated with contempt, or at least criticized by genuine antiracists. And yet, on these points, there is no response from SPLC, which is too busy watching the boys in the sheets, to keep their eyes on the boys in the suites.

Tolerance often precludes anger, and anger can be a necessary predicate to social change. Martin Luther King Jr., despite a commitment to love his enemies, was decidedly intolerant of American apartheid. By confronting white Southerners over their attachment to racial subordination, King was making clear his intolerance for many folks’ way of life, as his targets were quick to point out. King and his associates weren’t attacking intolerance, nor pushing for diversity–that other buzzword of the well intended. They were challenging racism: a word that many don’t even mention because it’s seen as divisive. “Let’s focus on what brings us together,’ they insist, ‘rather than on what divides us,” which is to say, let’s not talk about oppression, because that, after all, is a pretty big downer.

But neither a plunger shoved up Abner Louima’s ass nor the 41 shots fired at Amadou Diallo by a bunch of New York’s finest are about hate. Both are about power. Both are about the implied prerogatives of whiteness within the justice system: prerogatives that devalue by their very existence the rights and lives of black and brown people. And the culture of racism that pervades law enforcement won’t be affected by “tolerance” training.

Racial profiling doesn’t happen because cops hate people of color, but rather, because they, like too many others, believe danger has a black or brown face, and so, “Who cares if we ‘inconvenience’ these folks ‘a little bit’?” After all, it’s for the greater (read, white) good.

Aida Hurtado says it best: “It doesn’t matter how good you are, as a person, if the institutions of the society provide privilege to you based on their group oppression of others. Individuals belonging to dominant groups can be infinitely good, because they are never required to be personally bad.”

None of which is to say that I wish groups like the SPL Center would cease to operate. Despite the fact that they’ll never get — because unlike others they don’t need — my money, on balance, I guess I’d say I’m glad they’re around; that it’s better that they exist than if they didn’t. But since that’s the same way I feel about Brussels sprouts, that’s probably not saying too much.

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