America is becoming a more tolerant nation, we are told. Each new thing that we learn to tolerate makes us more progressive. But tolerance is a relative thing. For every new thing we learn to tolerate, there is a thing that we must stop tolerating.
Tolerance does not usher in some tolerant anarchy in which we learn to tolerate all things. Rather tolerance is a finite substance. It can only be allocated to so many places. While a society changes, human beings do not fundamentally change. They remain creatures of habit, bound to the poles of things that they like and dislike, the people that they look up to and look down on.
The balance of tolerance and intolerance always remains the same no matter how progressive a society becomes. A tolerant society allocates its intolerance differently. There is no such thing as a universally tolerant society. Only a society that tolerates different things. A tolerant society does not cease being bigoted. It is bigoted in different ways.
America today tolerates different things. It tolerates little boys dressing up as little girls at school, but not little boys pointing pencils and making machine gun noises on the playground.
The little boy whose mother dressed him up in girlish clothes once used to be a figure of contempt while the little boy pretending to be a marine was the future of the nation. Now the boy in the dress is the future of the nation having joined an identity group and entirely new gender by virtue of his mother’s Münchausen-syndrome-by-proxy and the aspiring little marine is suspected of one day trading in his sharpened pencil for one of those weapons of war as soon as the next gun show comes to town.
The Duke of Wellington once said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. What battles will the boys playing on the playgrounds where dodgeball is banned and finger guns are a crime win, and what sort of nation will they be fighting to protect?
The average school shooter is closer to the boy in the dress than the aspiring marine, but the paranoia over school shootings isn’t really about profiles, it’s about personalities. It’s easier to dump the blame for all those school shootings onto masculinity’s already reviled shoulders than to examine the premises. And mental shortcuts that speed along highways of prejudice to bring us to the town of preconceived notions are the essence of intolerance.
The trouble with tolerance is that there is always someone deciding what to tolerate. It is a natural process for individuals, but a dangerous one for governments and institutions.
In one of George Washington’s most famous letters, he wrote to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport that, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
The letter is widely quoted, including on a site that bills itself as “Tolerance.org”, mainly for its more famous quote of, “the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”. But the tolerant quoters miss the point.
George Washington was not advocating transforming the United States government into an arbiter of tolerance in order to fight against bigotry; he was decrying the very notion that the government should act to impose the condescension of tolerance on some perceived inferior classes.
Tolerance is arrogant. A free society does not tolerate people, it allows them to live their own values. And a tolerant society is not free. It is a dictatorship of virtue that is intolerant toward established values in order to better tolerate formerly intolerable values. A free society does not tell people of any religion or no religion what to believe. A tolerant society forces them all to pay for abortions because its dictators of virtue have decided that the time has come to teach this lesson in tolerance.
An open society finds wisdom in its own uncertainty. A tolerant society, like a teenager, is certain that it already knows all the answers and lacks only the means of imposing them on others. It confuses its destruction of the past with progress and its sense of insecurity with righteousness.
To the tolerant, intolerance is the most powerful act possible. They solve problems by refusing to tolerate their root causes. School shootings are carried out with guns and so the administrative denizens of the gun-free zones run campaigns of intolerance toward the physical existence of guns, the owners of guns, the manufacturers of guns, the civil rights groups that defend gun ownership and eventually toward John Puckle, Samuel Colt, John Moses Browning and the 82nd element in the periodic table.
None of this accomplishes a single practical thing, but it is an assertion of values, not of functions. The paranoid mindset that cracks down on little boys who chew pop tarts into deadly shapes, little boys who point pencils and fingers at each other, is not out to stop school shootings, but is struggling to assert the intolerance of its tolerant value system over the intangible root of violence.
It’s not about preventing school shootings, but about asserting a value system in which there is no place for the aspiring marine, unless he’s handing out food to starving children in Africa in a relief operation, serving as a model of gay marriage to rural America or engaging in some other approved, but non-violent activity.
To understand the NRA’s argument about the moral value of a gun deriving from the moral value of the wielder would require a worldview that is more willing to accept a continuum of shades, rather than criminalizing pencils and pop tarts for guilt by geometric association. A free society could do that, but a tolerant society, in which everything must be assigned an unchanging value to determine whether it will be tolerated and enforced or not tolerated and outlawed, cannot.
A tolerant society is as rigidly moralistic as the most stereotypical band of puritans. It is never at ease unless it has assigned an absolute moral value to every object in its world, no matter how petty, until it represents either good or evil. If good, it must be mandated. If evil, it must be regulated. And everything that is not good, must by exclusion be evil. Everything that does not lead to greater tolerance must be intolerable.
The FDA is proposing to regulate caffeine. The EPA is regulating carbon emission and encouraging states to tax the rain. Schools are suspending students for the abstract depiction of guns on such a symbolic level that Picasso would have trouble recognizing them. There is something medieval about such a compulsive need to impose a complete moral order on every aspect of one’s environment.
These policies take place in the real world and in response to assertions of real threats, but they are largely assertions of values. The debates over them tap into a clash of worldviews. That is as true of Newtown as it is of Boston. The same tolerant liberalism that can see deadly menace in a pencil or a pop tart, is blind to the lethal threat of a Chechen Islamist. If a gun is innately evil, then a member of a minority group, especially a persecuted one, is innately good. The group certainly remains above reproach.
The arrogance of tolerance does not allow for ambiguity. There is no room for guns in schools or profiling of terrorists. Instead all guns are bad and all Muslims are good. In the real world, it may take bad guns to stop good Muslims, but the system just doubles down on encouraging students to recite the Islamic declaration of faith while suspending them for chewing their pop tarts the wrong way.
Liberal values are at odds with reality, and they are not about to let reality win. In their more tolerant nation, there is more room than ever for little boys who dream of one day setting off pressure cooker bombs at public events in the name of their religion, but very little room for little boys dreaming of being the ones to stop them.
As a society we have come to celebrate the helplessness of victimhood and the empowerment of “speaking out” as the single most meaningful act to be found in a society that has become all talk. The new heroism is the assertion of some marginal identity, rather than the defense of a society in which all identities can exist. That is the difference between freedom and tolerance.
The little boy in a dress has put on the uniform of tolerance while the little boy making rat tat noises with a pencil is showing strong signs of playing for the wrong team. The wrong team is the one that solves problems by shooting people, rather than lawyering them to death or writing denunciations of them to the tolerance department of diversity and othering.
The complainer is the hero and the doer is the villain. Reporters and lawyers are the heroes because they are the arbiters of tolerance. Soldiers and police officers are the gun-happy villains because they respond to realities, rather than identities. They unthinkingly shoot without understanding the subtext. A free society is practical. It acts in its own defense. A tolerant society acts to assert its values. The former fights terrorists and murderers, while the latter lets them go to show off its tolerant values.
A free society teaches little boys that the highest value is to die in defense of others. A tolerant society teaches them that it is better to die as recognized victims than to become the aggressor and lose the moral high ground.
This is the clash of values that holds true on the playground and on the battlefield of war. On the playground, little boys are suspended for waving around pencils, and on the battlefield soldiers are ordered not to defend themselves so that their country can win the hearts and minds of the locals in the endless Afghan Valentine’s Day of COIN that has stacked up a horrifying toll of bodies.
In their cities, men and women are told to be tolerant, to extend every courtesy and to suspect nothing of the friendly Islamists in their neighborhoods. It is better to be blown up as a tolerant society, they are told, than to point the pop tart of intolerance on the great playground of the nanny state.
[Editor’s note: this article first appeared at Sultan Knish.]