10/08/2012 02:20 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

The Meaning of Tolerance

I'm sick of being polite to bigots -- but, for some reason, they can't seem to understand why. In an article titled "I Am Not Charles Worley: The Plea of a Christian Who Opposes Gay Marriage," Halee Gray Scott writes:

I'm tired of others, especially fellow Christians, assuming that because I'm opposed to gay marriage that I'm hateful like him. It's time to extend a hermeneutic of grace to each other -- especially to fellow Christians who still do not favor gay marriage and believe that homosexuality is not God's intent for human sexuality.

...I am asking for Christians to be kind to one another, no matter which side they're on. In particular, I am asking Christians who support legalizing gay marriage to not assume fellow Christians like me are hateful, bigoted, backwards, or just plain mean because we oppose legalizing gay marriage.

And former pregnant teenager Bristol Palin, writes:

In their simplistic minds, the fact that I'm a Christian, that I believe in God's plan for marriage, means that I must hate gays and must hate to even be in their presence. Well, they were right about one thing: there was hate in that media room, but the hate was theirs, not mine...

To the Left, "tolerance" means agreeing with them on, well, everything. To me, tolerance means learning to live and work with each other when we don't agree - and won't ever agree. So if I have a gay dance partner, we may have some interesting discussions about morality, marriage, and whether the government made him a great dancer because it built the roads that he drove on to dance practice.

These are the typical conservative whines about supposed "liberal intolerance." Such complaints -- "but why can't we all just get along, just agree to disagree?" -- are the last refuge of the intellectually defenseless, almost always used because either they or their beliefs are stupid. This, of course, sounds rude: How could anyone not politely agree to disagree on something, and leave it at that?

This is something which, when it comes to LGBT equality, straight cisgender people, who consider themselves allies, are perfectly capable of doing, because their opponents in these debates are not claiming that they are less worthwhile human beings, or that their relationships are inferior (or not relationships at all), or that they should be deprived of their basic rights. But queer people do not really have the luxury of politely agreeing to disagree with these people: We either fight them, or compromise our dignity. Civility is designed to preserve the status quo; we cannot win our rights with it.

In a brilliant response to Scott, Fred Clark argues,

Look, here's the deal: It doesn't matter if you think you're a nice person. And it doesn't matter if your tone, attitude, sentiments and facial expressions are all very sweet, kindly and sympathetic-seeming. If you're opposing legal equality, then you don't get to be nice. Opposing legal equality is not nice and it cannot be done nicely.

And Dianna Anderson similarly notes -- albeit in reference to a discussion about the equality of women in Christianity -- "If [they] are right, my whole world falls apart. How can I not take [it] personally? ... Because for me, it's not just for funsies. It never will be. It is too real, and too personal for me to discuss it 'for fun.'"

In other words, when it comes to arguing about LGBT equality queer people may be short on patience and willingness to go around and shake hands with the people who voted against our basic rights, who believe that we, and our relationships, are worth less than they, and theirs, are. These are not political issues: When you tell me that you oppose marriage equality, you're telling me that you think my relationships are worth less than yours.

This is particularly true in communities of faith, where the debates really center not just around rights but around the fundamental human worth and dignity of queer people. So, when you try to feed me some nonsense like that you're "not anti-gay" you "just" believe that same-sex marriage is "not in God's plan," don't be surprised if I get angry.

My point here is pretty simple: The "disagreement" over the rights of queer people is not a fight over ideas, it's a fight over people and lives. Telling queer people to be "tolerant" of bigotry is not only insulting, it impedes progress toward equality.

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. During the Civil Rights Movement, white North Carolina masked its bigotry with "civility" -- it continued to discriminate and demean people of color, but there were no fire hoses, no attack dogs, and, therefore, no television cameras rolling. It segregated its facilities, but it did so "nicely." Those who objected were being rude and disrespectful. This paradigm allowed segregation (de facto, not de jure) in North Carolina to survive longer than it did in Mississippi or Alabama. Frederick Douglass once said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.‎"

Norms of civility are designed to preserve harmony and avoid discussion of topics that cause disagreement (An old saying goes, "At dinner one must avoid three subjects: religion, politics, and money"). In Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom, William H. Chafe wrote, "Prizing civility means that people who become confrontational or argumentative have violated a basic principle of social discourse, and they should be shunned and condemned." Those who watched the Presbyterian Church (USA) debate, and then vote, on marriage equality likely observed the repeated calls to drop the issue for the sake of preserving "peace" within the church. But while avoiding contentious subjects may temporarily avoid disagreement, it also maintains the status quo -- and when the status quo is injustice, civility only serves to perpetuate that injustice. Those who ignore injustice are complicit in it: To quote Elie Wiesel, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

So, yes, conservatives, I'll defend your constitutional right to free speech. But I will not be a Nice Person when it comes to defending my rights or the rights of my friends; I will not tolerate intolerance. You do not get to claim to be "civil" so long as you deny me, or my friends, equality; the fact that you have friends who are queer, or female, or people of color does not make your homophobia, or misogyny, or racism any more palatable. And I am under no obligation to to be your friend, or even interact with you socially.

When it comes to how we choose to order our own lives and pick our company, intolerance of intolerance is no vice, but rather a virtue. I have no interest in befriending someone who views me, or any of my friends, as inferior to them, or as undeserving of rights. Just as a racist would be undeserving of my friendship, so, too, is someone who is transphobic or homophobic undeserving of my friendship. They are moral equivalents and thus equally detestable.