Is tolerance good enough for liberals?

Suzanna Walters, Director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University, and author of The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equalityhas argued that gay people (and other minorities) should not be advocating for tolerance. To her, “tolerance” is not a high enough bar to set.

She makes an emotionally appealing argument: Used in one sense, the word “tolerance” means “to put up with” or “to endure.” She basically argues that we shouldn’t be fighting for a world where people despise gay people but “put up with them” nonetheless. I can understand why a lot of people would agree with her interpretation.

But she’s wrong, on at least two different levels.

First, on a purely semantic note, although one definition of “tolerate” is synonymous with “endure”, there are other senses of the word. In technical literature, “tolerance” simply means “an allowable amount of variation of a specified quantity”, such as the “weight tolerance” of a table or an elevator. Also in colloquial usage, “tolerance” has a sense that means “to allow” without necessarily having the undertones of “to allow in the face of some kind of extreme personal distaste or discomfort”.

Sure, when some people talk about “tolerating gays” they are using it in the “endure” sense. But that isn’t what the word necessarily means. It can also mean “to accept variability” or “to accept differences”, and I think it’s unfair to assume that everyone who uses the word means it in the most negative possible way.

Secondly, let’s talk about ethics and ethical behavior. This will require a slight tangent into the complexity of ethics, for just a moment. But we need to talk about it to think through what it is reasonable for us to fight for in a society. Please bear with me.

Ethics has a lot of different shades to it. One of ways I think of ethics is to divide behaviors into five distinct buckets:

1) Ethically Repugnant. There is stuff I think people should not do, I would never do, and I think less of people who do it;

2) Ethically Undesirable. There is stuff I think people should not do, I try not to do myself, but I don’t really care when other people do it, and I don’t think less of them for it;

3) Ethically Neutral. There is stuff that I just don’t think about in ethical terms. Whether I do it or not depends on convenience, cost-benefit analysis, personal desires, and other practical things. But I just don’t care at all whether other people do it or not.

4) Ethically Desirable. There is  stuff I think people should do, and I try to do it, but but I don’t judge people who choose not to do it, and I don’t think less of them for not doing it.

5) Ethically Mandatory. There is stuff that I think people should do, that I always try to do myself, and I think less of people who do not do it.


Ethically Neutral things are pretty obvious, in many cases. Should you or should you not say hello to a dog you see on the street? Should you exercise in the morning or afternoon? Should you text your romantic interest to say “I hope you’re having a good day”? You probably have very good arguments for why you would or would not do each of these things, but they are not a matter of ethics. The decision is based on other criteria.

For me, Category 2 (Ethically Undesirable) might be something like lying about past drug use on a health insurance form. There are plenty of people who smoked pot once or twice in high school, but when asked “Have you ever done any drugs?” they say “no” and then sign their name to the document. I wouldn’t do it, because I don’t like signing my name to a lie. But I understand when people do it. I don’t think they are hurting anyone by doing it. I just don’t care that much. The same goes for finding cash on the floor of a department store: I will bring it to the front desk and tell them I found it; but if you pocket it, I won’t think any less of you for it.

Now, it is important to point out that not every single item that falls in one of these categories is identical. There are shades and degrees.

For example, being outrageously mean, insulting and bitchy online is Category 1 for me: I think people shouldn’t do it, I try not to do it myself, and I think less of people who do it.  Of course, I don’t mean just once or twice: everybody has bad days. But if you make a habit of always being rude and insulting to people, then I think it reflects on your character and I think less of you for it.

But just because being bitchy online is Category 1, doesn’t mean it is “exactly the same as” murdering someone or cheating on a spouse. All of these are Category 1, but that doesn’t make them all ethically “equal”.

What about sexual actions? For me, some sexual actions are Ethically Neutral (Category 3). For example, I consider masturbating while thinking about a hot movie star to be ethically neutral: It’s neither ethically desirable or undesirable. I don’t care if people do it. And whether I do it or not isn’t based on any consideration of “rightness” or “wrongness” in an ethical or moral sense. From the perspective of ethics, it’s just… whatever.

Having gay sex with my partner is also ethically neutral, at least in my opinion. I love it, it’s great, it’s something I choose to do… but I don’t choose to do it because I think I’m ethically compelled to do it. Neither do I feel ashamed or like I shouldn’t do it for ethical reasons. It is ethically neutral.

What about other people having gay sex? Also ethically neutral for me. It would only become an ethical matter if there were other factors that got involved that I had ethical feelings about: for example, cheating on a partner is Category 1 for me. But when a gay guy cheats on his partner, I think less of him because he cheated… not because he had gay sex.

That was quite a tangent, but now let’s get back to the idea of “tolerance”.

What does the ideal world look like for a liberal-minded person? What should the gay rights movement be striving for in society?

Specifically: Should we be asking for gay sex, gay marriage, and gay relationships to be universally viewed as Category 3 (Ethically Neutral) by everyone?

That seems to be what Suzanna Walters would argue.

But I’m not sure I agree. People in the world who view gay sex as Category 2 (they themselves think it would be “wrong” and therefore don’t do it, but they don’t think less of people who do) don’t really bother me. If a religious person honestly feels like gay sex is a sin, and therefore it is on the list of things he would never try, but he really doesn’t judge other people or care if other people do it… then why would I care? Why would it matter to me?

A person who views gay sex as Category 2, essentially seeing gay sex the same way I see running a stop sign when you are the only car on the road, it has no impact on me at all. And yet, at least by some interpretations of the word “tolerance”, that person is “tolerating” gayness in the world.

Do you understand? If everyone in the world were exactly like me, then nobody would ever speed up when the light changes yellow. But I tolerate people doing that, because I know that is part of my own values system and as long as they aren’t getting into car accidents their behavior doesn’t hurt anyone. Same with people who lie about smoking pot, same with people who pocket loose change they found on the floor of Target.

I tolerate all of those people: not in the hate-fulled “OMG I HATE THEM BUT I GUESS I’LL MANAGE!” way … but simply in the sense that I accept that there are people in the world who are different from me.

To me, that is what “fighting for tolerance” is really about… and in that sense, it is the best goal liberals can aim for, because it encourages a world of diversity.