The Modern Survival Guide #59
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But I’m not alone. There’s a whole world right outside my door, full of people that I’ll have to deal with once I set foot outside my happy little abode, and they may or may not agree with me. And it’s the same situation for you. Which is, when you think about it, one of the main social problems of our time.
Here’s the deal. When we think about living in a free, open, multi-cultural society, one of the things we have to accept is that there are people out there who are different from us. Doesn’t matter who you decide is “us.” Someone out in society is going to be waaaay different from that group. They may even seem offensive. They may even seem dangerous, especially to your way of life. Nonetheless, we have to be able to live alongside most of our neighbors if we want to keep things peaceful and productive. The concepts of tolerance and acceptance are therefore survival issues, and learning to navigate these waters is an important part of being both an adult and a citizen.
So, let’s get one thing out of the way early: we live in a relatively free, relatively open society for a damn good reason — everyone who came to the US in the early days was either running from persecution, seeking a new life, or enslaved. Over time that led to a solid cross-section of most of the world winding up inside our increasingly cosmopolitan borders. And if nothing was done to stop them, those very different people were going to end up killing each other over silly little things like what political party they belonged to, what their skin color was, and what gods they prayed to. Our Founders and subsequent statesmen figured this out early, and accounted for it mostly with the 1st Amendment, and later on the 14th and 15th Amendments, in addition to a host of other laws.
Now here’s the thing: the law and the Constitution only partway help you navigate this path of tolerance and acceptance. Constitutional law only states what the government can and can’t do, and most of the other laws deal with specific instances of property, workplace, or freedom of speech concerns; it takes a little more work on your part to figure out what this means for a private citizen.
Why Tolerance and Acceptance are Important
In short, we’re back to tolerance and acceptance, and their limits. You have a duty — not an option, a duty — as an American citizen to be as tolerant and accepting of other people as possible. Because that’s literally the only thing that keeps our society alive; we’re too stratified in too many other ways for us to work as a country if we can’t at least tolerate each other.
But what does this mean in practice? Time for some definitions:
- Tolerance: the ability or willingness to endure something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
- Acceptance: willingness to tolerate a difficult or unpleasant situation.
Now, when we put these two together, we see that the point isn’t to like or agree with what other people are doing; it’s to consent to go about your life and do your own thing, without impairing the ability of other people to do their own thing, within reason. And hey, if it makes you feel better, someone’s probably having a bit of a struggle tolerating you from time to time.
I threw in a caveat in that last paragraph. Did you see it? It was “within reason.” I wrote an article a while back on the Harm Principle, and this is one of its applications. Basically, your rights stop at my nose and my stuff. If you’re taking actions that harm me, I no longer have to tolerate you. But “harm” in this sense is a very strict measure. Are you taking actions that I don’t think are particularly savory? Yes. But am I directly involved in those actions? No. And are you actually hurting¹ someone? No? Then I have no basis to intervene in your affairs.
This applies to religion too, or perhaps I should say, this especially applies to religion. Because aside from politics, religion is one of the main areas in life where you might feel compelled to interfere in the lives of others to save their souls. And this is, indeed, one of the most delicate points in the whole discussion of tolerance, because, you see, every single religion feels that way. And this is how religious conflicts start.
Without a modicum of tolerance and acceptance in society, the consequence is blood. Maybe even your blood because, remember, we’re all doing something every day that is offensive to someone else. We can’t help it. The religious people are offending the atheists, the atheists are offending the religious people, all the religions are offending each other, the gay people are offending the social conservative prudes, the prudes are offending the debauched, the employed are offending the unemployed, the unemployed are offending the rich, the capitalists are offending the socialist, the socialists are offending the centrists, the libertarians are offending everybody, and so on and so forth, ad nauseam.
We are not a homogeneous culture. We are not a homogeneous collection of ethnic or racial groups. We are not a homogeneous religious congregation. We are a melting pot, and the thing about a melting pot is, it could boil over if we’re not careful. When we are careful, it’s a rich and vibrant stew that nourishes the body politic and puts energy into our economic and social lives while broadening our horizons. But we are obliged to keep an eye on it, and sometimes that means making policies or attempting to reform the culture in order to ensure that some modicum of tolerance is present in society.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how we came to the idea of “political correctness,” which is another way of saying the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people. Political correctness was and is the attempt to ensure that we live in a tolerant, accepting society by attempting to avoid things that make us less tolerant, less accepting, or to put it another way, assholes.
Dear GOD, do people hate it.
The Trials of the Politically Correct
Political correctness is a slur these days, as a result of a very successful smear campaign, which I will summarize as follows: a large number of people have been led to believe that any attempt to improve tolerance in society is, by extension, an attack on someone else, because the only way to increase tolerance is to limit the actions of another individual.²
And the hell of it is… sometimes they’re right. They’re also totally missing the point and wrong in general, but their initial analysis of the issue is essentially correct. Political correctness means that people should not be allowed to say some things, or do some things, that interfere with, demonize, insult, or otherwise castigate other groups.
This is simply an example of that old logical paradox that the only way to maintain tolerance in a society is to not tolerate intolerant people.
But that sticks in our craw as Americans, doesn’t it? What about the First Amendment, you might reasonably ask?
Well, the simple legal truth is that we do not have infinite rights, and we do not have infinite expression of those rights which we possess. You can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. Fighting words are a thing. Libel and slander are things. We have already come to the conclusion, as a society, that sometimes people shouldn’t be allowed to say certain things. So… why is this any different?
Well, the short answer is that political correctness is an attempt to improve tolerance and acceptance in society. That means change. And change is scary for all kinds of reasons. If you search message boards on the subject of political correctness, you find all kinds of examples of this. Things like:
- People getting mad because someone of another race or gender got the job they wanted
- People getting mad because they feel overly restricted if they can’t use racial or ethnic slurs
- People getting mad that they’re being asked to call different groups different things
- People getting mad over perceived favoritism in the way the law treats minorities
- People getting mad over the perception of “coddling” groups (especially young people — those snowflakes)
And this all gets tagged with the “political correctness” label. Trouble is, this is all reactionary stuff, and some of it isn’t even in the “political correctness” camp. For example, we can’t really verify if someone didn’t get a job because they were white and the other person was black, because hiring processes are confidential. Maybe the white guy wasn’t as qualified as he thought he was. We don’t know. All we know is that the white guy is pissed off, and he’s taking out his frustration on the bogeyman he can see.
A lot of the rest of this stems from the consequences of the football metaphor. You’ve heard this one, right? The idea that one group of fans gets mad when the other team scores a touchdown, not realizing that the score was 42–0 against the other team at the start of the game.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of people who rail against tolerance and acceptance because of the taint of “political correctness” haven’t internalized the idea that what helps someone else doesn’t necessarily hurt them. This is the flip side of the bit we were discussing earlier — yes, sometimes being tolerant means that you can’t or shouldn’t say something nasty about another person or group. But it doesn’t actually help you to say anything either. You’re not losing if you can’t call a black person you-know-what.
But all the logic and reason in the world isn’t going to solve the political correctness issue; it’s got a baggage train now. And this is a survival point — we’re in a period right now where reactionary groups are very much on the ascent. That’s a major problem for our society, and it’s why I felt the need to include this article in a survival guide — I’m a liberal, but I don’t have to be to see that maintaining basic standards of tolerance is good for a large, multi-everything democracy. Plenty of conservatives are on the same wavelength, but they have trouble processing it because “political correctness” is a wedge issue.
Separating Concepts and Finding a Way Forward
So, here’s my advice for you: forget, if possible, the words “political correctness.” Let us never speak of it again. This phrase has become too laden with baggage to serve a useful purpose, unless of course you’re trying to demonize your opposition and derail a discussion (and yes, it’s useful and instructive to watch people use that tactic).
Instead, let’s return to the concepts of tolerance and acceptance. Specifically, let’s remember that we are a free country. That’s our biggest claim to fame, is it not? And our survival as a free country is dependent on us allowing people to do as much as they want within reason. And part of that caveat of “within reason” is that we shouldn’t do things that degrade the concepts of tolerance and acceptance, because if we do pretty soon the country won’t tolerate or accept certain groups. And we have no way of knowing, ahead of time, whether or not we will fall into those groups.
So with that in mind, here’s a quick field guide for identifying actual examples of intolerance and it’s close cousin, negative discrimination:
- When someone dislikes another group based solely on an intrinsic characteristic of that group — skin color, sexual orientation, etc. “Intrinsic characteristic” means that it’s built-in, not the product of a decision, and you can’t change it. This is the basic working definition of bigotry, in case you were thinking that sounded familiar.
- When someone dislikes another group based solely on the actions of an individual. Just because one person does something doesn’t mean everyone who looks like them or belongs to their groups acts the same way. This is how a lot of racism gets started.
- When a system disproportionately and maliciously favors one group over another. This can get tricky when compared to instances of “positive” discrimination like Affirmative Action, but the crux is that a tolerant society shouldn’t build systems that deliberately exclude certain groups. This is how the patriarchy or systematic biases in favor of white people come into the picture.³
- When a system or person makes statements denigrating a group without cause, without evidence, or due to an intrinsic characteristic. E.g., you don’t get a pass for making racist, sexist, whatever-ist remarks, or for making unfounded accusations against a broad group of people.
Don’t do any of those things, if you can help it. Not just because it’s morally wrong to exhibit intolerance in the modern world. Not just because it’s logically inconsistent. Not even because doing any of these things probably violates the core principles of your religion. But rather, it behooves you to be tolerant because it is critical to the survival of our nation, and really any modern cosmopolitan nation. Being tolerant and accepting of other people, within reason, is exactly the same as making sure you aren’t killed in the next genocide.
And before anyone gets started on the whole “that couldn’t happen here” train — it can and it has, and all it takes are the circumstances to enable radically intolerant viewpoints for it to happen again. Read your history.
The nice thing about being tolerant and accepting is that it doesn’t actually require positive action on your part. That’s easy, isn’t it? Just avoid doing intolerant, discriminatory things. This is one of the few times in this series that my core advice to you is literally “do nothing” as the baseline.
But, if you do feel the need to make an active contribution towards the goals of tolerance and acceptance, here’s a few other things you might try:
- Volunteer: Just about every community has a local chapter of a service organization or social club that is committed to the ideal of improving tolerance in society; find yours.
- Contribute: There are bunches of groups out there that work for a more tolerant and just world. Give money to one of them. As we’ve discussed in other articles, money is the magic that anyone can do.
- Speak Up: When you see an instance of intolerance, speak up. You don’t always have to confront the bully; you just have to offer comfort, support, or shelter for the victim. In fact, that’s usually the better option; you’re not going to change the racist/sexist/whatever-ist’s mind in that moment, but you can influence the people observing the event.
- VOTE: Do not elect politicians who trumpet intolerant viewpoints. They are actively hurting our democracy and society by doing so. So don’t vote for them. This is a tripwire condition for me, and I think it should be for most people. Do vote for politicians who champion tolerance and acceptance.
The bottom line is that we are each responsible for ensuring that our society is and remains reasonably tolerant, reasonably accepting, and reasonably free. These concepts exist in tension, but never make the mistake of assuming that any freedom is good freedom. Freedom without limits is just another word for anarchy, and freedom to endlessly insult, demonize, and generalize another group of people is just another way to ensure violence and repression.⁴
So don’t do that. Be tolerant, and accepting, in situations where you are not being harmed and your life is not being affected. And keep it sane. Do not mistake personal resentfulness a justification to slam another group. Sometimes our failures are our own. Do not generalize, if you can help it. And don’t assume that every instance of insult and vitriol is intolerance; there’s this other thing called “being an asshole” that can exist as an independent concept.
At the same time, remember that there are some things that cannot be tolerated. We cannot tolerate child abuse, for example, for very good reasons. We can’t tolerate hate speech. We can’t tolerate religious customs that inflict harm on innocents. And we can’t tolerate intolerance, because sooner or later if we do, we won’t have any tolerance left. And then it’s all over but for the purges.
¹I.e., inflicting physical or emotional harm according to accepted medical or psychological standards, in the absence of consent.
²And when I say it was a smear campaign, there actually was and is a concerted campaign to demonize the concept of policy-based protections of tolerance. “Political correctness” has become a bogeyman term for right-wing media outlets, with corresponding consequences for the ability of conservative ideologues to even process the thoughts behind the concept. Remember that words are important.
³And that’s the difference between malicious discrimination and Affirmative Action, for the folks watching at home — just because a business makes a point to hire black people or Asian people for the purpose of fostering a diverse environment, doesn’t mean they’re excluding all white people.
⁴Because sticks and stones may break my bones, but words build worldviews and patterns of thought, and that’s why people get inspired to break bones in many cases.