Respect yourself

23 12 2008

I’d eat pie with Rick Warren. Yeah, I verbally smacked him around yesterday, so maybe he wouldn’t want to share a slice with me, but, as I’ve mentioned before, I think pie is a fine chaser to argument.

To move a bit further out on the spectrum, were Pat Robertson or President Ahmadinejad or Archbiship Akinola to invite me to dinner, I’d go and have at it. (Not that I’m sitting by the phone, waiting for these gents to call. . . .) Fascist, Klan member, Stalinist, misogynist—why not? We’d have either a thoughtful discussion, or I’d get my licks in; regardless, I’d learn something.

But I wouldn’t invite any of these folks into my home.  The public is the place in which to engage others whose views are not your own: this is precisely why the notion of ‘the public’ is so important to a pluralistic society. But private or personal places are just as important to this society, as a place to which we may retreat, and be among our own kind (however one’s ‘kind’ is defined). Discriminatory behavior in the public sphere is rightly curtailed, and even certain prejudicial expressions may justly be disdained in, say, the courthouse or workplace.

But of course we ought to be able to discriminate in intimate matters. Not every person I run into is (or wants to be) my friend, and the ability to work well with someone hardly requires that I engage in deeply personal conversations or hang out at the beach with that person. I like some things and dislike others, and when I’m feeling particularly low or high I want to spend that time with those who are more or less in sync with me. Yeah, we’ll have our disagreements, but we’ll also share some basic values. I don’t mind keeping my guard up, but I also greatly appreciate the chance to relax that guard.

Why am I chewing through all of this again? True, tsuris with Pastor Rick set off this latest round of mental mastication, but any excuse to gnaw away at the concept of tolerance. (Here ends the dental metaphor.)

And it helps, again, to refine different dimensions of tolerance. Personal tolerance is perhaps a matter more of  one’s ethos—how does one live with oneself—than a question of politics or justice, or how one lives and shares power with others. (Okay, that’s a little dodgy, but can you see the distinction I’m trying to make, that how we think about personal matters differs from how think about public ones?)

So on to the public: Tolerance among equals is a worthy goal, and necessary to a healthy politics. This hardly implies agreement and comity: partisans may shriek at or ignore one another, but as long as no side attempts to push the other outside of the law or the practice of politics or society, it’s fine. Such tolerance may arise solely from the calculation that one lacks the authority to shove the others around, but, again, absent such shoving, this form of tolerance is not only unproblematic, but praiseworthy.

Tolerance among unequals is problematic, and implies a kind of right of dominion by those who profess such tolerance. This is where debates about minority (be they ethnic, linguistic, sexual, or religious) rights come into play: Those who oppose the claims of minorities to live both as minorities and as equals arrogate to themselves the position to determine the worth of those minorities. In other words, the dominant decide the status of the dominated. Thus, when someone in that superior position states that she ‘tolerates’ the minority, she simultaneously reinforces [the status of] her own superiority and the ability [such a status allows her] to dominate, to set the boundaries for, the minority. The minority does not get to determine its own status, which is instead contingent upon the sufferances of the superior. Tolerance, in this scenario, is less to be welcomed than feared.

Feared: too strong a word. No, this  form of tolerance ought instead to be treated skeptically, tested, and exposed for what it is. Given that such actions are at least possible under a regime of dominance-tolerance, it is preferable to condemnation and repression.

And one should push against this kind of tolerance. Hannah Arendt in The Jewish Writings and Steven Biko in his speeches and writings (I’m still trying to get hold of a copy of Black Consciousness) made substantially similar points: it is not enough to be told we can enter society if we leave behind a constituting element of our humanity. For Arendt (following the 19th c author Bernard Lazare), the notion that she is only allowed to be a citizen, a human being, if she is willing to discard her Jewishness is unacceptable—and she criticizes those Jews who make such a bargain. Why should I accept that I am less than human as I am? she asks. Biko, too, was unapologetically black: it was not a defect to be overcome, nor a sickness to be diagnosed—and treated—by (violently) oppressive whites. He was a threat to South Africa’s apartheid regime because he would not accept the lie at the center of that regime: that a black person was a lesser human being.

Twenty-first century America is not 19th century or pre-WWII Europe, nor is it apartheid-era South Africa. But Lazare and Arendt and Biko’s message is centrally important to any social justice movement: do not let the dominant define who you are.

So (to wind this a very long way back around) it’s important to confront Rick Warren and others who make similar arguments about the basis of their version of tolerance. Of course, such confrontation with their words is also a confrontation with their status, so it is unsurprising that he and others who argue against equality for GLBT folk react with such furious self-pity: We’re not only dissenting, we’re not apologizing for that dissent.

We’re no longer respecting their authority, but asserting our own.