I still remember the time that, as an undergraduate student, I went to the student government office and the person working in the office was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt reading “United Against Intolerance.”
This struck me immediately as amusing for its irony. To be united against intolerance would be to be intolerant of intolerance, which requires me to be intolerant, the very thing of which I am intolerant.
And yet, the problem represented by this shirt actually takes significant concern and concentration to resolve.
To be considered tolerant, a society must be committed to an individual's freedom to live their life as they see fit, to have the beliefs they think are best, and to act in ways, so long as they don't harm others, they believe are best.
But should such a society tolerate individuals who are fundamentally opposed to being in a tolerant society? Should a tolerant society tolerate those who are intolerant?
To answer these questions, we need to be a bit clearer about what it means for an individual to be intolerant. That is, what does it mean to be intolerant, and what makes an individual intolerant?
An intolerant ideology is characterized by bigotry – a system of beliefs that is demeaning, dehumanizing or that denies the realities and lived experiences of others because they are part of some group.
Such an ideology is represented most obviously in our current cultural moment by white nationalists, who deny the validity of people who are not white and citizens of the United States. That said, an intolerant ideology could be any system that denies some group the chance to have a meaningful existence.
What makes an individual intolerant varies. Someone might have intolerant beliefs. Others might profess these beliefs publicly. Or they might wish to put those beliefs into action. Or they might want to institute policies based on their beliefs.
I don't think we can (or if we can, we should) try to control the beliefs of individuals. But how should we handle individuals who profess intolerance in public settings or who take intolerant actions or advocate for intolerant policies?
And so I guess I'm old enough now to be amused at myself. Because I think we should be united against intolerance.
While I do believe that, in general, individuals should be able to live, believe and act in ways they think are best, bigotry should not be tolerated.
It should be confronted by friends and family when encountered. It should be disqualifying for public office and should not be part of any public policy.
To have a diversity of views is a wonderful thing, so long as one of those views isn't grounded in the idea that some people mean less or are worth less. Tolerance is meant to provide the space for each individual to explore what's important to them.
But only those views that recognize the respect due all individuals should be tolerated.
Abe Schwab is a professor of philosophy and director of Ethics Across the Curriculum at Purdue Fort Wayne who specializes in applied ethics.