05/07/2012 02:36 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

To Bridge the Gap Between Dogma and Progress, We're Going to Have to Talk About Values

I recently came across this article about Jim Deitz and his neighbor's complaints about painting his two-story rental complex with colorful polka dots. It's not that unusual of a story. A homeowner gets creative, vengeful, or even desperate and an uproar ensues. Such homes are generally thought to be eyesores, ruining the aesthetic of an otherwise orderly neighborhood and threatening property values.

There's a lesson in this that goes beyond hues of paint, or personal rights versus collective ones, and into the much beleaguered realm of tolerance. As an ideal "tolerance" is an easily up-ended concept. As part of a political ideology, it's an ineffective argument. Too often, it's a word thrown into the debate ring naked, expected to defend itself only with the nobility of its own lofty goal.

However, it takes almost no effort to expose the low endurance of cultural tolerance, no matter how well-meaning.

Tolerance: I want a world in which everyone is accepted for who they are and all belief systems are embraced in the name of diversity.

Some Extremist. Somewhere: I hate fags. I believe dark-skinned people are inferior and all Jews are going to hell. My religion says I have the right to take a rod to my children and my wife should be submissive to me. I believe a rapist shouldn't be punished as long as he's willing to marry the girl he raped and girls should be circumcised so that they don't go astray. 

Tolerance: Those are terrible, hateful, ignorant beliefs! 

Extremist: Well now, you're not very tolerant of differences after all, are you? 

It doesn't matter whether the extremist is right-wing or left-wing, religious or secular. The example above might also be about a militant vegan, a socialist, or an anarchist. The fact is that as both a sociopolitical ideology and personal ideal, tolerance often proves to have very short reins and more than a chance of being outed as hypocritical.

Tolerance -- "the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with" --  is not easily separated from personal values, ideas of what's morally right and wrong, or even from purely aesthetic likes and dislikes. Who among us would really be willing to live next door to a polka-dotted house or one festooned with stuffed animals and graffiti? Who among us is willing to hold their offense at having neighbors whose values, habits, beliefs and tastes might drastically differ from our own?

In America, we often talk about peace between Israel and Palestine as if we -- in our still segregated neighborhoods -- have all the answers. Yet, everyday in America there are disputes, debates and court cases over issues that are minor in comparison to the cultural, philosophical and religious differences that divide Palestinians and Israelis.

In California and New York recently, there have been lawsuits against neighbors who smoke cigarettes or cigars in their own yards, homes or apartments. There have been outcries against homeless shelters, halfway houses and drug treatment clinics opening in certain neighborhoods all across the land. The building of a mosque in Tennessee and a synagogue in Connecticut were hotly debated. There's a glut of NIMBY (not in my backyard) realities that fly in the face of inclusive ideals. We may feel compassion for the homeless, but we don't want to live near a tent city. We may not want the mentally ill to suffer on the streets, but don't necessarily want them housed in our neighborhood.

Even religious tolerance, which is a longstanding ideal many Americans agree with, only extends so far. Would you appreciate the diversity of having a Michael Pearl adherent, one who believes that even infants should be smacked, living next door? What about a polygamist family? Members of a religious cult? The head of the Westboro Baptist Church? No one I personally know would and neither would I -- which is why the argument for "tolerance" rings hollow for me both socially and politically.

Most often, when we speak of tolerance we leave off the disclaimer of  "within my comfort level," which is what most of us really mean if we're being honest. However, when we try to define the collective values behind what's tolerable and what's not, we often find ourselves in never-ending, circular disagreements. It's one thing when the matter at hand is the rare polka dot house, but it's quite another when the talk is about more pressing, universal problems such as equality, liberty, justice, and individual rights.

There's also this: As a person subject to several possibly exclusionary labels -- gay, for example -- the idea of being "tolerated" as if I were a public nuisance of some sort is offensive to me. I don't oppress anyone with my sexuality. I don't harm anyone else by being attracted to other gay women. I didn't insist that my children be gay because I am, nor did I raise them to resent their own heterosexuality or that of others. My "lifestyle" isn't violent, hateful, or outrageous. What's to be tolerated? What I do in my bedroom? Occasionally holding hands with another woman in public? I can think of hundreds of things more appropriate to the word tolerance -- children having public meltdowns, barking dogs, people who wear too much cologne -- but love? Between happy, consenting adults? My values say that love should be accepted, even celebrated, not just tolerated.

That is, of course, my ideal and not everyone agrees. There will always be disagreement in a society of individuals with varying beliefs. Even when America was almost exclusively a Christian society, there were divisions. Predominately Islamic countries remain embroiled in war and strife. Religion is hardly the unifying force that many people -- particularly politicians who use it as bait and religious figures who use it for political gain -- believe it to be.

However, there are ways to become more unified -- not by religious or political sameness, not by the weak gospel of tolerance -- but by education and the promotion of humanist values that can be shared. We've seen this lately in the campaign against bullying. What was once taken as a somewhat normal, if unfortunate, part of growing up is now being seen in a new light. Collectively, we're making bullying less socially acceptable. We've called for new policies and prevention programs and we've gotten them. The problem is not solved, but at least most of us now agree that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

We've come far in gay rights with the same human-centered promotion of values. When I was growing up, it was inconceivable that any gay people be out of the closet unless they were so rich or famous that they could insulate themselves from the consequences. Yesterday, in conservative Tucson, I saw two young women walking hand in hand at a dog park and no one gave them more than a nod and a smile. If there were people who objected, they kept it to themselves.

Human-centered values don't necessarily exclude spiritual beliefs, but also don't seek the approval or appeasement of organized religion. Historically, religion has evolved around human progress, not the other way around. There are many things we don't do anymore -- burn witches at the stake, enslave other people, deny voting rights to women, or put children to work as soon as they can walk -- that were once justified by common religious interpretation. As people (including the religious) gained new knowledge and perspectives, the interpretations of religion changed. Society created laws to ensure that the human values that were most shared would be upheld, and kept safe from any dogmatic creed that might threaten them.

This is where the "tolerance" school of thought fails, and abysmally. Without the backbone of stated values and discussion about what might actually, realistically be tolerable (and not) within those values, it comes across as a feeble and naive call to wear blinders when it comes to even heinous offenses against humanity. I see this often in both progressive and conservative political circles. Progressives too often espouse tolerance and make excuses for human abuses -- especially abroad -- in the name of cultural or religious differences while conservatives too often pat themselves on the back for tolerating those they see as American outsiders, like immigrants, the irreligious, gays, minorities, Union workers, and the poor.

Unfortunately, the American discussion on values was tainted by the religious right when it was used as a battering ram against gays. "Family values" became an unpleasant, divisive, and ultimately laughable (Tinky Winky is gay! Feminism causes women to kill children and become lesbians!) catch phrase. Obviously, "family values" wasn't a human-centered campaign, nor was it about values shared by the majority, religious or not -- but it was a fringe movement that scared many people off and made "values" a frightening word in the area of debate.

I believe we have to move beyond our fear of discussing values because, even with disagreement, this is where we find the most fertile common ground. This is where we "tolerance" matures into actionable ideology and choices to embrace, accept, or reject certain social mores. By defining and then promoting the secular human values we might share, as opposed to promoting a religious or political agenda, we can change the tone and depth of discussion. For instance, I don't personally know anyone on the right who is so anti-abortion that they would rather have a rape victim give birth or a mother die -- and I know a lot of people. I also don't know anyone on the left who thinks welfare should be a free-for-all without any restrictions. How many people do you know who are extremists on either side? My guess is not many. Yet these are the types of conversations that dominate politics and the media today. They take away from the truth and heart of human matters, while fanning flames of antagonism and disunity. In the media, it's not the calm, sensible voices that have often pulled in the biggest audiences, but the most hyperbolic and divisive. Do we value that? Should we? If we don't, how do we change it?

That's the kind of value discussion we should have. -- that I think we need to have if even our most commonly shared ideals are to kept whole, alive, and growing. (I mean, come on, who doesn't believe in the American Dream, in liberty and justice for all, in a land of opportunity?)

Right now, the country feels stagnant to me. Politics seems to be running somewhere between the rails of apathy and enmity. People are scared for their futures and fear tends to bring out the worst in humanity. When people don't feel like they might not have much to look forward to tomorrow, they get greedier, more self-preserving, less likely to give others a break or the benefit of the doubt, or to care about problems they may not personally have a stake in (women's reproductive rights, lack of health insurance, homelessness). I believe it's gotten to this point for several reasons, but that a major one is that we, as a society, let go. Somewhere between the afterglow of the idealistic '60s and the infusion of extremist religion into the Reagan White House, we gave up searching for and promoting shared, human values. We became entranced by dogma and dividing lines -- by how far away, rather than how close we could stand. Our perspective seemed to shift from "family of man" to "dog eat dog".

In an atmosphere like this, it's not "tolerance" we need, but a renaissance of critical thinking and thoughtful debate. Who do we want to be as individuals and as a nation? Where do we want to be in terms of tradition or progress? What do we want our futures to look like? What values are most important to us and to a majority of others? What values might we share and then move ahead with together? When we can speak as openly and easily about those things as we do about a polka dotted house, I believe the manufacturing of political and doctrinaire divisions will slow down, allowing us all to catch our breath, rediscover our commonalities, and move toward a more productive, hopeful, prosperous and conscientious time.