Sunday, April 29, 2018


Tom Bridgeland linked to a two-year old post of his own in the comment section under "Hierarchy of Thinking." Recommended.  It connects somewhat with my thoughts about tolerance, which I had been mulling over on my walks already.

Sometimes defining things more exactly is important. If we don't think that gay marriage is wrong, then it is inaccurate to say that we are tolerant of gay marriage. We tolerate something when we don't agree with it, don't like it, or don't prefer, but put up with it anyway for some larger reason. We might just not want the hassle of disagreeing; we might believe that letting people do what they want is more important than interfering, or having the government interfere; we might wish to keep peace in the family, or the church, or the workplace, or the town; we might be trading off our opposition for something that people might oppose in us.  Other reasons will certainly occur to us if we think about it. That is tolerance. It is clearer when we use the form "tolerate," which sounds at least a touch strained or put out, than in the modern uber-virtue of "tolerance."

You are not a Tolerant Person if you don't actually disapprove of anything, or find anything wrong. I don't mean that you can't be a Nice Person, merely that you will not have any opportunity to exercise tolerance.

Such people do not exist, of course.  When we think something is really wrong, like preying on children, voting for Donald Trump, driving drunk, or having drums in worship, we treat it differently.  We might choose to tolerate it, we might not. We might tolerate it in some circumstances but not others.

Conservatives make a big deal out of the idea that liberals - the tolerant people - are not very tolerant of opinions contrary to their own, which they consider intolerant. I would like to bypass that whole "I can tolerate anything except intolerance" discussion at present. You can find it in many places, and others make arguments on either side far better than I can.  Or better than I'm going to bother to do, anyway.

Let's look at some day-to-day examples of who tolerates what, outside of the political and social questions. Loud music was mentioned.  Every year some house within a quarter mile has a large party, with loud live music not to my taste until late at night.  One year it happened 4 times in a summer.  Also, there will be a few daytime parties or work parties a house or two away every summer with Rock 101 playing. Three houses up the street, there are dead cars in the yard, and a house gone into disrepair around the corner.  There have been other examples of this at other times over our 30 years here. We tolerate this for a variety of reasons, but largely because it seldom lasts.  Kids grow up, people move out. Life is too short.

Are people in cities tolerant of this? They can't easily afford to be. Life close together requires not only more rules, but more enforcement. Road offenses, such as driving too fast, jay-walking, parking out into the street a little too much, stopping and talking, kids playing games in the street.  We think these things are wrong, but we have a lot more flexibility to handle then slowly or quietly. We tolerate them.  I can multiply examples of things that happen at the school, over at the Little League field, at the village stores.  People who don't know each other smile and talk in passing. They can afford to meet each other's eyes.

That may not be any moral greatness. We are less-inconvenienced and less-endangered by such things out here, so we aren't overlooking so much. Yet it deserves mention that people in cities are, by necessity or not, much more intolerant about such things. I am tolerant of their intolerance, because it doesn't affect me much.  But I am not so tolerant of their claim that they are somehow the tolerant ones. In everyday experience the opposite is true.

I am also suspicious of this "openness to new experiences."  There is something to this. The Big Five personality tests do pick this up, though it is defined a bit oddly. People from cities do travel to other countries more.  However, this "travel" deserves a closer look. As Tom points out about flying between concrete canyons in the US, so also does this happen in travel abroad. They travel to cities, and to places that tourists go. Junior year abroad is not in a peasant village. Let's look at other groups that travel in more specific ways. People in the military. Missionaries and short-term help groups. Peace Corps volunteers. They see a great deal more of other people and cultures as they really are. Even international business, though that also involves cities and wealthy people, often involves seeing a side of a country that tourists don't.

Working at a hospital in NH, I have long encountered people from big northeastern cities who come here with a bit of disdain. Yes, we have these lovely mountains and vacation spots, but our cities just aren't as exciting.  We're rather provincial.  A Jewish friend from New York translated this for me thirty years ago: "They mean restaurants." It is true that they also mean people dressed up in exciting ways, and overheard music, and the opportunity to go to concerts and sporting events that are right there. The quick connections to everywhere in the world is romantically also in their imaginations. Yet his synecdoche was correct.  They are not really open to all these diverse experiences.  they don't like it when those experiences move into their neighborhoods.  They like it when they can taste them and get out fast.  They like seeing the swirl of evening gowns and food trucks and elaborate hats and hair, or expensive sneakers on poor people, or colorful costumes. They like the Disney-plus experience.

They are "tolerant" of other religions because they don't think they are wrong - not much more wrong than Christianity, anyway. They are not tolerant of other social views because they think those are wrong. They think tobacco, and sugar, and fats are wrong, and so are increasingly intolerant of them. They avoid old hymns, old technology, old literature, old foods - yes they are open to new experiences, but only new experiences. They are not open to old experiences.


james said...

Bridgeland's essay is in line with my ideas on the subject.

Among other things, simple geometry means that in the crowded environment of a city things that harm few or none in a small town can seriously disrupt life in a place where people are channeled into complicated patterns to maximize efficiency. (One tough problem is that the number of people in a city increases as R^2, but the number of paths available for them to take only increases as R. Public transportation does not change this feature--it can only increase the scale factor for the R.)

Madison is planning a homeless shelter to handle something over a hundred men. One or two loiterers isn't a huge problem, or--usually--a threat. A hundred in one place sounds like a nightmare. On the one hand I expect their pathologies to reinforce each other, so that the men behave worse to each other and to outsiders. On the other hand, in order to maintain control with so many in one place, I expect more, and more onerous, rules than one man sitting on a bench would experience. Worse behavior, and more rules--and then more rules because of the worse behavior--it sounds like a city in miniature.

Of course in this particular case having a tighter regimen might benefit some of the men--get them to take their meds consistently, for instance, but that's another issue.

Christopher B said...

As Tom points out about flying between concrete canyons in the US, so also does this happen in travel abroad. They travel to cities, and to places that tourists go.

Being recently returned from a cruise NY to the Azores, Ireland, France, and UK I can attest to this. We took brief sojourns from each of the ports, planned two on our own and took the cruise tours the other two times. Went dolphin watching in the Azores, to Jameson's in Ireland, Paris in France, Stonehenge and London in the UK. Saw mostly the cities (a bit less of that in the Azores) and didn't interact with the locals much at all. The only time we were around somebody who didn't speak English as a SL was at a travel stop between Le Havre and Paris. My wife had to dust off her HS/college French to interpret for another American shopper.

The amount of grumbling about the bus rides to Stonehenge and Paris was legendary. They certainly were long (2-3 hours one way) but they really provided the only opportunity we had to at least SEE something of England and France (in a minimal way) and not just check viewing a pile of rocks off your bucket list but apparently that was of little interest to most people.

Jonathan Smith said...

A Dutch philosopher named Andreas Kinneging helped me sort out my understanding of tolerance. Kinneging explains that the exaltation of tolerance into a primary virtue has resulted in lots of ersatz 'tolerance.' Like you, he points out that much of what is said to be tolerance is, in fact, indifference. Personally, I would expand this and say that much of what is said to be tolerance is, in fact, a liking for something other people dislike. This takes the word tolerance as it is used in a phrase like "lactose tolerance" and transfers it to cultural or moral questions. In any case, Kinneging says that much of what passes for tolerance is, in fact, resignation. He quite rightly says that I can only claim to be tolerant if I have the power to stop the behavior I dislike.

So Kinneging's conclusion is that tolerance is actually fairly rare because we are only rarely in a position to be tolerant. He also argues that it is a relatively minor virtue, quite insignificant compared to the cardinal virtues.

You may remember me as the geographer who occasionally comments here. So let me say Kinneging's title is a little weird, and the book has nothing at all to do with geography. The book is otherwise quite good. What is interesting is that Kinneging was a standard European liberal who set out to write a book against traditional virtue ethics, and wound up being convinced by the old writers he planned to demolish.

Andreas Kinneging, The Geography of Good and Evil: Philosophical Investigations, trans. Ineke Hardy (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I had heard the title but knew nothing of it until now. It sounds more like something I would enjoy than the impression I got from the title. What you report does indeed go deeper than what I said, and I think wisely at all points.

I did remember on sight who you are. I suggested to one of the people in my fantasy football league that he should try and take one of your courses, but he had graduated that year. My second son, living north of Houston, makes fun of your customs all the time.