POLITICS

Mike Pence Dodges Criticism By Calling Critics 'Intolerant.' That Dog Won't Hunt.

03/31/2015 07:36 am ET | Updated Mar 31, 2015

This weekend, on ABC News' "This Week," host George Stephanopoulos rather conscientiously attempted to elicit a "yes" or "no" answer from Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who was invited to clarify the unique language of his state's recently enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That "yes" or "no" question, "Can a florist in Indiana refuse to serve a gay couple without fear of punishment," was dodged by Pence, as were additional iterations, ranging from whether the law's general intent was to enshrine the right of private business owners to deny service to customers for religious reasons, to whether Pence personally believed that such discrimination was lawful.

Stephanopoulos insisted that the question was relevant, because one of the law's supporters, Eric Miller of Advance America, specifically cited the ability of private business owners to refuse service to members of the LGBT community as one of the Indiana law's major, and particular, selling points. Stephanopoulos offered Pence multiple chances to either correct Miller's contention, or to publicly confirm that it was true.

Pence never answered one way or the other. Instead, showing an Ed Milliband-like flair for repeating one's talking points, Pence largely stuck to his script, insisting that the Indiana law was in no relevant way distinct from similar laws -- including the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed decades ago and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. (This is not, in fact, true.) At a point, though, you can see the patience drain from Pence's face, as he offered one intriguing deviation from his flash cards:

PENCE: George, look, the issue here is, you know, is tolerance a two-way street or not? I mean, you know, there’s a lot of talk about tolerance in this country today having to do with people on the left. And a -- but here Indiana steps forward to protect the constitutional rights and privileges of freedom of religion for people of faith and families of faith in our state and this avalanche of intolerance that’s been poured on our state is just outrageous.

Here, Pence is retreating to a rhetorical fortress of sofa pillows that some conservatives often crawl behind when the sentiments of the vox populi bend in the direction of calling them out for bigotry. You liberals want everyone to be tolerant! But you're not tolerant of us! Gotcha!

There is so much confusion tied up in that defense, it might seem senseless to even try to untangle it. In terms of the ever-growing national support for LGBT rights, especially, the argument sounds like the death rattle of an old way of thinking that's quickly going extinct. But given how often people like Pence deploy this argument, it's worth giving disentangling it a shot. Let's start at a basic level: To be tolerant does not mean that one must be tolerant of intolerance. Okay? If you tolerate intolerance, you have, well ... promulgated intolerance. That would seem a self-affirming point, but it clearly is not obvious to the Pences of the world, so let's peel it back further.

When a person says, "Hey, let's please be tolerant of others, even if they are of a different race or gender or creed or religion or sexual orientation," what is typically meant is that such people should be treated equally by society. They should have the same legal rights and opportunities as everybody else. The same fair shot at carving out a decent life. That's what most people mean when they talk about being tolerant. Critically, what is not being demanded is universal agreement, or even universal acceptance. Indeed, the ability to countenance our occasional disagreements and allow for criticism in a tolerant manner is something that makes our society stronger.

What Pence is doing, unfortunately, is confusing criticism for intolerance. Right now, the wide world is learning about Indiana's law, discovering that it is in many meaningful ways different from previous Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, and reacting with a collective "Duh fuh?" This reaction, as much as Pence would prefer to believe otherwise, is a thing that's well beyond the coordination and control of a monolithic "Left." But even if it were, the simple fact of the matter is that criticism of the law is absolutely legitimate. There's nothing distinctly unfair or intolerant in debating or critiquing the actions of lawmakers or the laws they pass. That's just the price of doing business in politics.

And speaking of, there is a price of doing business in business as well. A law that forbids discriminating against customers based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or et cetera -- that, my friends, is the real two-way street. What is a "two-way street" after all, if not a promise to everyone traveling upon it that bright yellow lines, illegal to cross, run right down the center? What Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its unique statutory language has done is remove those sensible yellow lines. Gone is a world in which people walking into private businesses can be assured they won't be discriminated against. Now, in this new Indiana, business owners face the undue burden of having to publicly proclaim themselves to be practicing fair and equal customer service. What was once automatically assumed -- the neighborly, amicable relationship between business and customer -- has become something that everyone now has to double-check and newly ensure.

Part of what Pence describes as an "avalanche of intolerance" is the reaction from those recognizing that a line has been crossed, who are now resolved to withhold their custom from the state of Indiana until such time as the previous, two-way street regime is restored. Pence is incorrect to describe this as "intolerance." What Pence needs to understand is that this reaction is simply the natural consequence of the actions he took as governor.

The assurance of fair, non-discriminatory business practices is, as it turns out, pretty essential in a competitive marketplace. And when you take away that assurance, you imperil your ability to compete. Just as an openly discriminatory florist opens itself up to the risk that not enough people will want to continue doing business with it to maintain that business, so too does an openly discriminatory state endanger its ability to maintain itself economically.

Those are the consequences. And consequences have nothing to do with tolerance. All the states that Indiana competes with for economic benefactors will happily tolerate Indiana's law all the way to the bank. Anyone who tells you that "tolerance" is supposed to provide everyone with the means of living a consequence-free existence has badly lost the thread.

If there's something meaningful to be learned here, however, it's that talking about tolerance is much easier than building and maintaining a tolerant society. It should be acknowledged that this Indiana law exists because of a tension between differing communities of people, and different schools of thought. Resolving this tension will take hard work. But it's precisely hard and conscientious work that everyone deserves. To be tolerant is to acknowledge this, and to seek reasonable reconciliations and accommodations in instances like this. Were Pence a more conscientious governor, he'd recognize that the solution that's been crafted is neither sufficiently reasonable, nor sufficiently accommodating, and he'd resolve to work harder at achieving something that is.

His protestations of intolerance aside, Pence is fully entitled to believe that gay people are icky, or Godless, or whatever he wants. He just can't -- without criticism -- enshrine the right to discriminate into the law. No one is stopping anyone from having these opinions, coming on television to express that opinion, or even holding office while possessing these views. You just can't have a whites-only lunch counter, or a straights-only bakery. Or, perhaps in Indiana, you can, but if you do, then people who are being discriminated against have a right to encourage people to take their business elsewhere and criticize those business practices. And those on the receiving end of that reaction will, unfortunately, have to tolerate that.

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