Tolerance, Acceptance, and Civility

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There is a phenomenal episode of South Park in which the main characters are forced to visit a “Museum of Tolerance” where they are bombarded by PC propaganda on various social and racial issues. When the brainwashing doesn’t work, the kids are sent to a Nazi-style “Tolerance Camp” for more intensive indoctrination.

The moral of the story is the difference between acceptance and tolerance. To tolerate something, as one of the young heroes precociously explains, is simply to put up with it. It does not mean you have to like it or approve of it. And so all that coercive inculcation had not been to impart the children with tolerance, after all, but rather to mandate approval, to force acceptance.

The distinction is lost on many people. We should seriously want social toleration, in the narrow sense, meaning the willingness of people to coexist with those of different opinions, lifestyles, religions, ethnicities, and so on, and to refrain from using force to make others conform to their own will. But not everyone is going to like everyone else, or want to associate with everyone else. To impose acceptance on people is to be intolerant and make a crime out of their thoughts.

Libertarianism boils down to true tolerance. To live and let live, to refrain from initiating force or threatening or delegating initiatory force against peaceful people, is the essence of the libertarian ethic.

It does not mean that libertarians approve of all behavior that we would shield from violent sanction. It is common to confuse what libertarians believe should be legal, should be tolerated, with what we think is virtuous.

Crack cocaine and racist job discrimination should both be legal. They should both be tolerated. To say this is not necessarily to endorse them or to say that everyone needs to accept them.

It seems that a lot of people have trouble with this concept because they tend to believe that their own idea of what’s good and bad naturally corresponds to what should be enforced by the state. It is discouraging that most people accept using the government to force their way on others and see government as a proper moral guide.

While acceptance is something that is obviously going to vary from person to person, and tolerance is something we should all want everyone to practice, there is something else that the world could use a whole lot more of, and that’s civility.

Civility lies somewhere between tolerance and acceptance. It is tolerance, for example, to leave in peace those whose consensual sexual practices one might find distasteful. It is acceptance to actually approve of what they’re doing. Civility is, at a minimum, not being a total jerk, spewing lewd invectives at them every time they walk by on the street.

Tolerance is not punching someone in the face because of his religion. Acceptance is being completely okay with what he believes. Civility is, at least, not mocking his God in front of him at every opportunity.

Not relentlessly insulting others is a bare minimum. Civility, however, should not always be at its minimum. It is often proper to treat others with some respect, to give them, when you can afford to give it, the benefit of the doubt, to be open to learning and gaining from their humanity even if you don’t accept everything about them, to be polite and, when appropriate, to smile.

The market, thankfully, does encourage civility among people, for the most part. It inspires people to trade with one another courteously, to engage with each other politely enough to share resources and perspectives. Commerce cannot, however, create civility all on its own. Indeed, the relationship between the two is reciprocal. Just as trade bolsters civility, civility enables market transactions. In the process, acceptance is to some extent encouraged, but one grand wonder of the market is how well it caters to diverse demands, including those of the petulant and contemptuous. You can refuse to accept 99% of the world and still get what you need. But while acceptance is not intrinsic to market transactions, the market simply cannot function without a requisite amount of tolerance.

Tolerance is in fact the baseline of civility. It is impossible to be genuinely civil if you’re being positively aggressive. The president who bombs a village is less civil than the most inconsiderate moviegoer you’ve ever had the misfortune to sit behind. The drug war is more uncivil than a junkie relieving himself on the sidewalk. Taxation is less civil than common greed.

After a century of the global empire and myriad progressive experiments, it is no surprise that America’s not as civil a place as it used to be.

Without at least some civility there is no civilization. Without being tolerant there is no being civilized. We should accept this today if we want the future to be tolerable.

Some degree of acceptance probably helps in maintaining tolerance and civility. The PC establishment can go way too far, but accepting some differences among people, even if you don’t embrace them completely, helps make civility easier and tolerance effortless. But the biggest danger is in being intolerant against that which you simply don’t want to accept. Of this, the PC establishment is frequently guilty, as it puts so much stock in its version of acceptance that it often neglects tolerance.

In the ideal world, everyone would at least stay civil. On a day-to-day, personal basis, it is usually best to try to be civil, even when others aren’t even trying.

Civility can be hard to achieve, even harder to retain. Perhaps sometimes it’s too hard, and being uncivil is perfectly appropriate. Sometimes it’s impossible to disagree without being disagreeable. But even then, it is surely possible to be uncivil without being uncivilized.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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