(Simultaneously posted to my Facebook account)
How do you respond to behaviour that you despise?
There are a couple of interesting articles about tolerance on the blogs this week, prompted by the Supreme Court decision to allow ‘crush’ films, in which small live animals are “slowly crushed or impaled by a woman wearing stiletto heels.” Since that idea completely disgusts and grieves me, I wanted to read what Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias had to say about it in the context of tolerance:
“‘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.”
I agree with him that we seem to forget what tolerance actually is — allowing behaviour to occur that actually really bothers or offends us, without rancor towards those behaving in this way. It’s a rare thing.
Hanson advocates more tolerance: “we face a very real danger of insufficient tolerance threatening our peace and prosperity.”
I had to stop and think about my response to the legal, and therefore cultural, acceptance of these crush films. Should I be more tolerant?
As Hanson says, if it’s true that those who make and watch such videos are satisfying depraved tastes that “will intensify their threat to society,” then intolerance may be the way to go. But if there’s not evidence of that, then what basis is there for my or society’s intolerance? If I refuse to allow any activity that I find despicable, then I lack tolerance.
Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution responds to Hanson by arguing that tolerance doesn’t really get us anywhere as a society, anyway, since so few people are truly tolerant; what’s needed is to normalise behavour, to make it non-icky and therefore acceptable:
“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. …
“When we are required to confront things that bother us we sometimes (often?) reduce cognitive dissonance by changing our preferences so that we are no longer bothered. … [But] 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.”
Tabarrok seems to be saying that tolerance is almost not possible for humans because of our strong tendency to confront cognitive dissonance with a change of opinion that makes the previously despicable behaviour OK; we get anxious when we try to live in the place of opposites, such as “I hate activity A because it’s wrong, dangerous, disgusting, and cruel” and “I allow activity A to be done.” So we change our minds in one direction or the other: either I don’t find that activity so bad, or I crusade against it with all my energy. Most of us are not going to crusade against every activity we find abhorrent, so we tend to change our preference, which is a lot easier.
In the case of these crush films, I don’t see a case for normalising the behaviour; I’d like to keep it marginalised. But I guess that’s the way with intolerance — it’s unthinkable to me that this behaviour would be acceptable in the mainstream. (Of course, I feel almost the same about deer hunting for sport, but I “allow” it because I’m not going to go up against the hunters. And, I like some people who hunt. I live with that dissonance.)
There are many behaviours that I strongly dislike that I can tolerate, but there are some that feel beyond the pale to me, and cruelty and torture — intentionally causing pain, harm and terror for no other reason than that it gives the actor a kick — fall into that category. It’s not only because of the agony caused to the living creature, the victim, which is bad enough. But I also assume, without evidence in some cases, that each person’s actions toward or away from compassion, toward or away from violence, matter deeply to that person, to the culture, to the society, to the universal flow of love and life. Call me a whacko (but I hope you can tolerate me).