Are we too intolerant of intolerance?

Published 10:20 pm Wednesday, January 29, 2003

By By Lindsey Sherrill
Staff Writer
A week or two ago a co-worker and I were sitting in the newsroom, taking a break and chatting like we do occasionally, when a certain subject that has bothered me for a while came up. We talked about this issue and eventually reached the same conclusion. The issue was an important one and the conclusion was this:
Tolerance is a two way street.
Tolerance seems to be an idea that is put above all others in America today. It is the ideal at whose altar all public policy and standards of political correctness worship. The American Heritage Dictionary defines tolerance as "the capacity for or practice of recognizing and respecting the opinions, practices, or behavior of others." This is a noble ideal and, in many ways, the basis of the American democratic-republic. It is a mutual respect that must exist in order for civilized society to exist.
However, there are many times in which I feel as if another definition of the word "tolerance" may be more fitting to its use in our culture: "[tolerance is] the capacity to absorb a drug or a poison continuously or in large doses without adverse effect." Often times the doctrine of tolerance is like a poison seeping into the moral and intellectual fibers of our country and one must wonder, how long can such as drug be injected into the bloodstream before the dose becomes fatal?
So often tolerance becomes an almost militant strategy to silence dissenting opinions. Should anyone oppose an issue, the dissenters can be vanquished by proponents declaring their foes "intolerant." Such a label spells political disaster in our tolerance-obsessed culture.
Yet, is tolerance truly the answer to our social ills? Are there not some issues that absolutely must not be tolerated? Or perhaps an even more important question is for whom does this doctrine of tolerance apply? Far too often it seems that the rule only covers minorities, liberals, and those whose controversy has been declared "politically correct" and socially acceptable for today. Yet if one takes a conservative or unpopular stand, it is immediately ruled "intolerant." It seems that intolerance is the one thing that cannot be tolerated. Is this because it is simply easier to rule these viewpoints intolerant than to consider the chance that perhaps they are right? Is it not so that if the true spirit of American democracy is followed, tolerance must go both ways?
Lindsey Sherrill is a staff writer for The Advance.

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