By David Hegg
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock somewhere, you’re acutely aware we are becoming an increasingly touchy society. It seems the new national sport is overreaction to issues that, while not unworthy of discussion, are certainly not worthy of vitriolic outbursts and mean-spirited acts of violence.
We’ve become a society whose surface is so sunburned any little touch sets us off. And unless we can rediscover a bedrock principle necessary to the health of any pluralistic society, we will certainly devolve further and further into a polarized, hate-filled nation.
We need to rediscover tolerance, as properly defined. Too many today have taken the word “tolerance,” emptied it of its historical meaning, and poured in their own definition: If you disagree with my view you are intolerant and need to be silenced or worse! For these folks, to tolerate means agreement and acceptance. To disagree and oppose it, to be intolerant
Ultimately, this wrong-headed view of tolerance demands that all differences be eliminated, and everyone forced to believe the majority view. This reimagined definition rules out any consideration that minority opinions have a place in society. Ultimately, those who have co-opted tolerance for their own purposes are arguing for totalitarianism, and they don’t even know it. They simply can’t tolerate intolerance as they define it.
Most movements today asserting their right to participate in the public square of ideas were once minority opinions whose adherents demanded that their opponents at least tolerate their position. And by tolerate they meant put up with, not agree with. They recognized they were swimming upstream against the current of culture and held that their being different should not be a reason for either persecution or expulsion. What they desired was tolerance, as it has always been understood. They didn’t expect everyone around them to change their opinions. They simply wanted the freedom to express theirs without recrimination.
That’s what tolerance really means. To tolerate presupposes a difference of opinion. To tolerate means to put up with those with whom we radically disagree. It never has meant to agree with them … until now. And frankly, it’s killing us.
As a pluralistic nation it is absolutely essential that we understand and practice the true meaning of tolerance. If we expect to remain a nation that hangs together despite our differences, we must not become so sunburned on the surface that bumping into those with whom we differ causes us to forget who we are at the core.
America is the grand democratic experiment, built on the premise that all are created equal. But if we redefine equality to mean we all must have the same opinions, we’re on the way to being a totalitarian state where some get to determine what equal means for the rest of us. And that won’t be America.
So, for example, if you want to, you can believe that sex is not a fact but a preference, or that melanin actually determines one’s human value, if you want to be so foolish. But don’t expect those of us who disagree to remain quiet about what we believe.
We must at least agree that neither of us has the right to curtail someone’s business through hate campaigns or force someone to go against their strongly held religious beliefs, or destroy another’s property, or treat any fellow member of the human race with anything less than respect, kindness, justice and neighborly love.
We may not agree, but we must tolerate one another. We can argue vociferously, but we must stop short of inflicting harm. Why? Because at the core we are all human beings, made to reflect the character of our loving and holy God. Ultimately, we have the most important thing in common: personhood. And what’s more, we’re also Americans, and we’re in this together.
On this Independence Day we do well to remember Benjamin Franklin’s cogent exhortation as he and a few courageous men considered the task of severing the colonies from bondage to the British crown. He said “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” And while the consequence of division today is not death by hanging, you get the idea.
Yes, we have differences that need to be rationally discussed, with solutions being reached creatively and mutually. If we allow our differences to divide us, we’ll see our nation erode before our very eyes. In fact, we’re seeing that now and only the anarchists are applauding.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.