Carrie Prejean and the “Tolerance Means Being Nice” Myth
I twittered a nasty comment yesterday about Carrie Prejean, the Miss California contestant who voiced her opposition to gay marriage during the competition's round of Q&A, and who, in the media circus that followed, was discovered to have posed partially nude for an underwear catalogue when she was 17 years old (this was before she underwent breast augmentation surgery, paid for by pageant officials). The comment caught the eye of Get Religion's Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, with whom I sparred back and forth until finally Ziegler fired across the bow with: "Good to know politely sharing your political opinions means you volunteer for a public stoning from 'tolerant' types."
Prejean is now acting as a spokesperson for the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which is led by Maggie Gallagher, who has been defending Prejean from "tolerant types" since Boobiegate broke. Gallagher and I exchanged words in the lead-up to November's gay marriage referendums after I wrote something obnoxious about her at reason.com's Hit & Run blog. The exchange ended with Gallagher writing in an email, "It's nice to know you are just as intensely offensive to a person's face as as you are in print. The voices of tolerance tend to be like that."
Which got me wondering: Since when did tolerance become ammunition for the right?
After all, tolerance in the public sphere was conceived as a way to prevent persecution of religious minorities (one recent example: anti-Semitism in the modern Muslim world). Christians are not a religious minority in the United States, and calling Prejean, Gallagher, and others nasty names isn't persecution–especially not on the grand scale of physical violence and economic duress that religious minorities continue to experience in nearly every country but the U.S.
Perhaps after watching academic leftists misuse "tolerance" to enact campus speech codes and pathologize conservative thought in the humanities and the social sciences, social conservatives felt justified turning the concept on its head to quiet those same leftists when they attacked Christians for arguing against gay marriage, stem cell research, and abortion. As a result, Prejean's original pronouncement (whether because it was solicited or simply by the magic of conservative thinking) was neither tolerant nor intolerant–essentially a pure, value-free expression of belief–but anyone who criticized her beliefs was labeled both tolerant (pro-gay) and intolerant (derisive toward dissenters)–i.e., a hypocrite. (I tip my hat to the social conservatives on this one. Gallagher and NOM are infuriatingly calm, if a little melodramatic. They seldom stray from their core message, except to chide tolerant liberals for being intolerant, and they picked a fantastic acronym for their organization.)
And yet, nobody has fire-bombed Carrie Prejean's house or NOM's headquarters. There has been no coordinated pogrom against members of the GLBT community in the wake of gay-marriage victories in Maine, Iowa, D.C., and other states. Even our accusations of intolerance are incredibly tolerant–we're making them in social forums.
Both sides, then, should forget about tolerating the other if it means diluting public discourse with hollow niceties. Social engineering, by its very nature, is an ugly business. Liberals shouldn't be reasonable, sensible, or amicable, because homophobia and theocracy are not reasonable, sensible, or amicable concepts. Nor should social conservatives stand by while apostates, heretics, and nonbelievers adulterate God's Happy Family formula.
Tolerance leads to obfuscation, double-talk, statistical manipulation, and outright omission–so let's keep this discussion hostile.