Over at A Bird’s Eye View, I’ve been having a conversation in comments with John Fowles. In one comment, John castigates a student who made a remark that he viewed as derogatory towards Mormons. John writes: “If she is ‘liberal’ doesn’t that mean she is supposed to be ‘sensitive’? Or does that only mean she is sensitive to the favored social causes and minorities and intolerant towards others?”
Ahh, where to begin?
It seems to be a cherished belief of various self-defined conservatives and/or critics of liberalism that “liberal” views (also sometimes characterized by such critics as “moral relativist” views) are characterized by some level of prioritization of some idea of “tolerance” which includes universal acceptance and tolerance. Conservative critics run this view up the flagpole any time any liberal criticizes any conservative. “How dare you criticize me? Aren’t you supposed to be the tolerant ones, anyway? Inconsistent!” If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times.
Let’s discuss this critique.
Eliminating Straw Liberals, Round One
As an initial point, it is necessary to point out the obvious fact that there are “liberals” of all different types. Indeed, this critique is generally employed against a party characterized (by a critic) as a liberal, and there even more types of are as-described-by-others “liberals.” There are radical Marxists. There are Clinton Democrats. There are union workers, inner-city poor minorities, and rich East Coasters. There are as many “liberal” types as there are “conservative” types. And guess what — they are not all the same. In fact (gasp!), many groups who might be characterized as “liberal” don’t really prioritize any type of universal tolerance. Read Marx, and you’ll find a lot of ideas. Universal tolerance isn’t one of them. So it’s really not fair to castigate “liberals” as a group for being inconsistent if the proof in question is the statements of a Marxist. So the first question for John (and for others wishing to employ this kind of critique) is who exactly is speaking, and why their statement should be viewed as representative of some group of “liberals” who do prioritize some idea of universal tolerance.
(To frame it in reverse, imagine a liberal arguing against her conservative friend: “But aren’t conservatives supposed to be patriotic? But you’ve got Bo Gritz trying to start up his own country! Inconsistent!”).
The basic moral here: Cast a broad enough net (“I’m going to define all people who disagree with me as ‘liberal'”), apply a broad enough standard (“all liberals must be tolerant!”), and you’re likely to find an inconsistency. It’s not the end of the world; it’s your own definitional problem.
I think that a large number of instances of this critique are probably based on definitional problems, misreadings, and other attacks on straw liberals.
Eliminating Straw Liberals, Round Two
Moving beyond the first batch of straw liberals, it is true that some people who define themselves as liberal seem to advocate tolerance as an important virtue. Again, however, we have to examine the actual beliefs of these people, not simply the soundbites created by their opponents. For example, organizations like the NAACP strongly advocate racial tolerance. However, this position is not necessarily derived from a broader position of advocating “universal tolerance.” It is possible to derive one from the other, but it is not the only possible derivation.
The Real Question
But moving beyond that second cut, let’s give John’s argument the credit it deserves: There is some subset of self-defined liberals who view their beliefs as stemming in whole or in part from some idea of prioritization of some concept of universal tolerance. Given that those people exist — and putting aside for a moment the liberal-conservative labels and the attendant baggage — let’s focus on a logically interesting question:
“Is it possible to prioritize universal tolerance?”
“How does someone wishing to prioritize universal tolerance treat the intolerant?”
Let’s take our universal-tolerance advocate — call him Nate — and ask him some questions. “Can I criticize Blacks?” “No, you should be tolerant.” “Can I criticize gays?” “No, you should be tolerant.” So far, so good. But the question that raises interesting issues is this one: “Can I criticize Nazis?”
If Nate allows me to criticize Nazis, Nate is being intolerant to the Nazis. If he does not allow me to criticize them, he is supporting their intolerance towards Jews.
The fact is, Nate is going to have to develop some ordering of priorities in order to determine who he will favor. If he values tolerance highly, then it may follow that he will prioritize tolerance for immutable characteristics over tolerance for chosen attitudes. That is, someone has no choice whether or not to be Black or Jewish or a woman. However, people have choices whether or not to belong to the Nazi Party or the Ku Klux Klan. Thus, Nate may decide that he will be intolerant to Ku Klux Klan members.
Is that position inconsistent? I don’t think that it is. It’s a required ordering of preference. However, given the choice between tolerating a group that is defined by some immutable characteristic (such as members of a race) and tolerating a group that is defined though voluntary membership, and which wishes to discriminate against the first group — well, John makes the decision that best goes with his belief system.
So — to move back to John Fowles’ original question:
A speaker criticized the church for its treatment of minorities. Is that statement intolerant towards church members, and is that intolerance evidence of a logical inconsistency in some “liberal” position?
Well, (1) if the speaker was indeed a tolerance-minded liberal (not a Marxist, or another liberal-minded person who prioritizes some other values over tolerance), and (2) if that person espoused some sort of universal tolerance ideal — and if either of these arguments aren’t met, then John’s question is irrelevant — then the universal-tolerance-minded speaker’s analysis could reasonably be as follows:
(a) The church is an organization comprised of voluntary membership, and is intolerant towards racial minorities;
(b) Racial status is immutable; therefore
(c) My belief system requires me to prioritize tolerance towards minorities over tolerance towards church members; thus, I should criticize the church’s treatment of minorities.
Inconsistent? Only if you write for the National Review.