Thursday, April 29, 2010


Blunt Object responds to a post by Alex Tabarrok replying to Robin Hanson's response to a Washington Post editorial about the Supreme Court's recent Stevens case. (Blogology is complicated.)

But they're not talking about animal cruelty; they're talking about tolerance. Hanson leads with the money quote that's gotten everybody abuzz:

“Tolerance” is a feel-good buzzword in our society, but I fear people have forgotten what it means. Many folks are proud of their “tolerance” for gays, working women, Tibetan monks in cute orange outfits, or blacks sitting at the front of the bus. But what they really mean is that they consider such things to be completely appropriate parts of their society, and are not bothered by them in the slightest. That, however, isn’t “tolerance.”

“Tolerance” is where you tolerate things that actually bother you. Things that make you go “ick”, or that conflict with strong intuitions on proper behavior. Once upon a time, the idea of gay sex made most folks quite uncomfortable, and yet many of those folks still advocated tolerance for gay sex.

Tabarrok replies, and makes a practical suggestion:

I'm all for more tolerance but Robin's own examples suggests that social change is not much driven by changes in tolerance.

As I suspect Robin would acknowledge, gay rights have not advanced because of more tolerance per se, i.e. they have not advanced because more people are willing to accept behavior that bothers them. Advance has occurred because fewer people are bothered by the behavior. Note, for example, that if the former were the case we would not see more gays and lesbians on television, as we do today.
But since few people are or ever-will-be truly-tolerant, tolerance by itself probably can't get us very far towards a society of peaceful variation. Instead, we will have to argue that variant practices are normal, not bothersome or a subject of indifference. The route to drug legalization, for example, is to encourage more normal people who "smoke pot and like it" to come out of the closet.

And the Blunt Object brings it around to a subject near to my life:

One problem with bother-modification “tolerance” is that it permits vicious, petty, closed-minded, and vindictive prejudice under the smug sanctimonious cloak of righteousness. Thus militantly “tolerant” leftists who would never in a million years argue that two consenting adult men who love each other should be forbidden from having a romantic relationship have argued tooth-and-nail with me that two consenting adult women and one consenting adult man just can’t possibly all love each other and should be prohibited from having a romantic relationship. Bigamy is backwards and exploitative and, you know, Mormon and stuff, and any woman who gets it into her pretty little head that she wants to be part of a polyamorous relationship has been cruelly manipulated by some evil swingin’ dick.

And then he goes and complicates all my nodding with the big-picture question inherent in all this talk of tolerance:

For example, if I should opine that smoking shouldn’t be so relentlessly crowded out of public and increasingly private life because it’s none of our fucking business what you burn and inhale, those “tolerant” folks immediately assume that if I’m willing to tolerate smoking, I must not be bothered by it. Not goddamn true. If you smoke in my home I will evict you at knifepoint.

Ah, public smoking. I hate--I hate--when people who wouldn't dream of blasting Rammstein or masturbating in public think nothing of whipping out a cigarette in a restaurant and lighting up. I grudgingly oppose smoking bans on private-property grounds, but what about public spaces?

To put it more broadly, very few people consciously oppose "deviant" behavior just because it squicks them. In general, they truly believe that the behavior is harming somebody, or harming society in general. If Bob's public smoking is inflicting something unpleasant on another person, are you obligated to tolerate it? What if Bob is peeing on your leg? They're just unpleasant sensations, after all. No harm done.

And what about tolerance of behavior that the "intolerant" person truly believes is harming society as a whole? If he believes that acceptance of openly gay relationships undermines the structure of the family and thus harms society, is that intolerance, or do we simply have a disagreement on the facts? What about tolerating the radical fundamentalist Muslim who tries to spread an ideology of theocracy and unequal rights for women? What about tolerating the guy who declines to donate to your favorite government-run charity? What are the limits of tolerance for the person who honestly thinks that cultural unanimity on a specific point is necessary for the health of that culture?

I personally take the libertarian perspective: I reject claims of "greater social good", and want my legal system to tolerate all non-assault, non-theft behavior in the belief that any gains from forcible social engineering will be more than offset in the long run by the unintended consequences. But this is a tiny, tiny minority opinion. In the rest of the world of political philosophy, which generally accepts some degree of forced compliance with some moral beliefs in the pursuit of a greater social good, where do you draw those lines?


  1. Thus militantly “tolerant” leftists...have argued tooth-and-nail with me that two consenting adult women and one consenting adult man just can’t possibly all love each other and should be prohibited from having a romantic relationship.

    And just for the record, note that in my experience at least, this refers only to a tiny, extreme ultrafeminist fringe. Every "real person" I've talked to (on the left _and_ the right) has taken one of two positions on my relationship with Genevieve and Danielle: "Good for you! [Often followed by a dozen or so questions]" or "Okay. I don't really get it, but whatever works for you". It's really only the psycho interwebs caricatures who've ever held the oppressions-of-teh-patriarchies line.

    This may very well be a matter of unbotheredness rather than tolerance, but I hate giving the impression that some bigoted superculture is oppressing me. I'm shocked in general by how little antipoly sentiment there is out there, and any discrimination we face is more a matter of not being recognized or endorsed by governments, not a matter of oppression. And since I'm generally not too concerned with government recognition, that's something I can live with.

  2. Public smoking (in publicly-owned space) is something I'm willing to put up with, because the alternative is worse. Private smoking -- in a bar, or a restaurant, or &c. -- is a different matter: if your restaurant doesn't have a no-smoking section (or around here, a sealed-off smoking section), it had better have great food if you want me to spend my money there. Your place, your rules; and if I don't like 'em I just won't do business with you. I think we're in agreement on this; I just wanted to be clear about the "knifepoint" comment.


    I agree that people don't consciously oppose behaviour just because it squicks them, but I suspect very strongly that people start from squicked and manufacture reasons for that behaviour to "harm society as a whole". Witness the great kerfuffle over the KFC Double Down, for example. Or the boobquakes in Iran.

  3. We are in agreement on "public" smoking on private property (restaurants, bars, etc.). I "tolerate" it in that I (grudgingly) oppose laws against it. That doesn't mean I'll "tolerate" it in the sense of patronizing a restaurant that doesn't cater to my smoke-free preference.

    I agree that people don't consciously oppose behaviour just because it squicks them, but I suspect very strongly that people start from squicked and manufacture reasons for that behaviour to "harm society as a whole".

    No disagreement here. Unfortunately, when we go to apply the principle to real-world decisions about government policy, there's no adequate test for how much of a person's opinion is feelings versus reason. In practical terms, we need to treat political disagreements as rational because, again, the alternative is worse.

    In a political landscape where almost all moral compulsion has transitioned from religious to public-good rationales, I'm skeptical how much value the idea of "tolerance" has. That is, the drive to enforce "our" morality on "them" has adapted to an environment of universal lip service to "tolerance", rendering the idea of tolerance essentially obsolete.

    Apart from causing some cognitive dissonance in the moralist once in a while, tolerance seems to be dead as a philosophy that can effect social change.

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