On Tolerance and Respect
Tibor R. Machan
The concept ?tolerance? does not really capture the attitude of most
Americans, even Westerners, toward those with whom they disagree, although
that is what people say when one doesn?t believe in banning another?s
viewpoint from being expressed, another?s ways from being practiced. So,
for instance, if you aren?t gay and dislike how gays conduct themselves
but you don?t believe in interfering with them, you are regarded as
tolerant toward gays.
This, though it sounds a bit judgmental, is actually quite right. One
tolerates things of which one disapproves or what one dislikes?I used to
tolerate humidity while living in Auburn, Alabama, which certainly didn?t
mean I was fond of it, quite the opposite. I put up with it, reluctantly.
And many of us tolerate some of the annoying habits of friends without
pretending we like them but recognizing that it?s their lives and we do
not get to mess with it.
Respecting another?s views is also often used to characterize this
attitude of disagreement which doesn?t move toward interference. ?I
respect your position,? some say, ?even though I completely disagree with
you.? This, too, appears at firs to be a misstatement since if one really
disagrees with another?s position, it is quite impossible to respect it.
You think it is wrong, for crying out loud, so why then would you respect
it? One respects achievements, accomplishments, getting it right, not
being wrong about things.
But perhaps the complaint is a bit too picayune. When we tolerate
something, perhaps we are making the point that although we disapprove of
or dislike it, we do not believe we ought to do anything hostile to those
whom we tolerate. We are dealing, after all, with adult human beings and
what we probably do respect is their autonomy, their sovereignty?which is
to say their right to choose. Respecting a right isn?t the same at all as
respecting how it is exercised. It is, instead, respecting the fact that
someone is a grown up, mature enough to make one?s own decisions about
important matters in one?s life. It is, as contemporary lingo puts it,
respecting another?s space.
Even tolerance involves this element of acknowledging that other people
get to govern themselves and no one ought to deprive them of this
opportunity even if they fervently disagree with or dislike what they do.
Their lives are their own, not ours, and so they are the ones to guide how
it will be conducted. The right to the pursuit of one?s happiness means
this, too?not imposing, by force, goals on other people even if one
considers them wrong.
Both tolerance and respect for others in these limited ways are part and
parcel of a free, civilized society. Such a society is marked by mutual
acknowledgement that we are adults and as such we have both the right and
the responsibility to run our own lives without being interfered with as
if we were children or severely impaired. This is why such attitudes are
regarded a matter of human dignity. This dignity doesn?t arise from
achieving great goals in one?s life but in having the capacity to govern
oneself. This is why when old people are treated like kids they often
regarded it as an affront to their dignity?they may not be as quick as
they used to be but they are quite human and deserve to be treated as such.
One reason all this is worth reflecting upon is that the US Supreme Court
has struck a massive blow against both tolerance and respect in these
senses of those terms with the Kelo v. New London City (CT) when it
sanctioned the use of eminent domain?forcible but legal taking of private
property?by city governments for purposes of violating the rights of
individuals and small businesses so as to make them fall in line with some
plan the city has hatched and which benefits other private parties, a plan
they want everyone to conform to. Of course, it is assumed, rather
naively, that such plans represent that of the majority of a given
municipality or other legal jurisdiction. Yet even if this were the case,
imposing the plan on others is to be intolerant, to fail to respect their
basic right to self-determination.
If I have obtained, free and clear, a small shop in a city and manage to
run it profitably enough to keep it solvent, for others?for many others?to
crush my enterprise is both intolerant and disrespectful. Certainly, these
others do not need to approve of my enterprise but in a civilized society
they must tolerate it. Nor do they need to have any respect for what I am
embarking upon but they owe respect to my standing as an adult human being
who is free and responsible.
Instead the US Supreme Court joined with all too many local officials in
wiping out tolerance and respect for individual autonomy and sovereignty
by legally authorizing others to impose their projects on the rest whether
they choose it or not. They have endorsed the ancient concept of
paternalistic government. And that is not democracy?it is the rule of the
tyrannical mob, a form of barbarism.