The limits of tolerence

Natalie Reed is facing a problem that I’ve become more and more aware of in the last year or so. Natalie blogs about feminism, atheism, skepticism, and trans/queer rights (and may or may not be a magical unicorn) and she’s facing hostility, even outright bigotry, to each of these issues from people who are nominally her allies on one of the others. It’s almost as if they’re seen as “teams” and if not directly competing with each other, at least arguing over who gets to use the ball-park.

This bit jumped out at me:

A friend of mine once made the grim but terribly accurate observation (in the context of talking about trans women who dismiss the rights or genders of other trans women who are, say, non-op or lesbian) that people only tend to be exactly as tolerant as it takes to accept themselves, and maybe their immediate friends and family, but have a whole lot of trouble extending that principle beyond that circle, to people who they don’t understand, with whom they don’t share the same experiences or identities or priorities.

That feels very accurate to me, though still very confusing. I’m reminded that soon after I posted this I had an acquaintance discreetly ask me if I were intersex because it seemed so unlikely that someone who wasn’t would think to include them.

It’s really easy to stop seeing anything past the end of your own nose, I get that. What confuses me is that so many people seem to find tolerance a difficult thing, when it comes so easily to me. Perhaps I don’t really have tolerance, but apathy instead, because I find it so easy to just not care what most people are doing. They live their lives and leave me alone, and I extend the same courtesy. Why is this so hard for some people?

I think most of it is just tribalism. So many of our instincts are obsolete now, we can change the world faster than we change ourselves. We tend to compete with each other, for resources or attention or land, and we do this so naturally we often don’t even notice it. Perhaps we assume that if we ally with another tribe, we have to use that to gang up on a third.

Tolerance or rights is not a zero-sum game. Treating someone different as though they’re a person doesn’t mean you have to treat someone else as a thing. Everyone matters, even if they’re so different that at first you have to look twice to be sure that they’re even human. Including criminals, even if they have, by their own volition, become such a monster that it’s clear that they must be locked away for everyone’s safety, they still matter. We can’t simply decide that somebody isn’t a person anymore.

And make no mistake, that’s what we are doing when we engage in petty bigotry. When we say that same-sex couples can’t get married, or that atheists can’t hold public office, or that trans-women can’t participate in a ritual, or any other number of other stupid things, what we’re really saying is that they’re less of a person. That they aren’t as important, and that it doesn’t matter that they’re being excluded because they aren’t as important. That nobody should feel bad for treating them like dirt.

Yeah, fuck that. Everyone matters. We shouldn’t be trying to decide which people we’re going to care about, we should be caring about all of them. That goes double for public institutions, which exist directly to serve the people, all the people. The government should never decide whether it should or should not provide a service for someone, it should be deciding what the best way to serve them is.

Which of course brings me back to the question of tolerance, since many people and organizations are terribly offended that when they are providing public services, often as a proxy or even direct agent of the government, they are expected to provide all the services, even those they don’t like, to all the people, even those they don’t like. I really don’t know what else to say to that except that in a free society where the government serves the people, the government should have to jump through more hoops than the people should.

This post really got away from me, so I guess I’ll sum up like this: Natalie Reed is pretty awesome, and nobody should have to put up with that shit. If you’re working to improve the rights and conditions of a group of people, it’s probably worth considering whether you’re working against another group in your spare time, and if that’s really who you want to be. Don’t ever forget that just because you don’t like someone, it doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

Take care everyone.

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on March 5, 2012, in Daily Post and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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