11/06/2012 03:28 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

Tolerance and Liberalism, (Re)Defined

Many people I've spoken to lately seem to be confused about the true meaning of "tolerance" and "liberalism." I think it is time to set the record straight. Tolerance in its simplest definition is "freedom from bigotry."

Liberalism in its simplest definition is a belief in tolerance (freedom from bigotry) and in progressive reform in socio-cultural, moral/religious, and political matters.

Neither one is about being required to accept all people's viewpoints all the time, especially when those viewpoints are themselves the opposite of tolerant and liberal, containing bias, prejudice, hate, or a belief that someone other than the self is less-than the self.

Americans who are poor, female, of color, queer, or not Christian cannot afford to practice the nonchalant type of acceptance-of-any-and-all-opinions when the opinion of many hardline social conservatives is that it would be preferable to exclude these people from the conversation altogether (if not to eliminate their equal/human rights).

In a post earlier this month, Noah Baron hit the mark when he stated, "Asking folks to be 'polite,' wondering why an oppressed group is not being 'nice' to its oppressors -- these are tools that have long been used to perpetuate discrimination."

To be clear: Tolerance in America is about respecting (and celebrating) the equal/human rights of all people in this country. It is not about begrudgingly allowing other people to exist while lobbying against their equal/human rights. And it is not about accepting the viewpoint that lobbying against peoples' equal/human rights is a legitimate course of action.

Being a Liberal or Social Progressive in America is about working toward reform -- the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, or unsatisfactory -- in the socio-cultural and political sphere.

It is not about having to dispassionately accept every opinion on an issue, including those opinions that will hurt you and/or yours personally and politically. It is not about sitting blithely by while pundits assert that both sides in a debate about whether to grant equal/human rights are equally legitimate. And it is not about having to consent to the opinion that disregarding the rights of any Americans is in any way justifiable.

Yes, a sophisticated and engaged dialogue is necessary and productive in the political landscape of our time. But no, people who are for liberal reform (the amendment of what is wrong and corrupt toward the achievement of equal human rights) and tolerance (freedom from bigotry) should never be forced to be, nor endure critique for not being, "liberal about" or "tolerant of" the political beliefs of those who are for the equal/human rights of only some.