I’ve been thinking about the meaning of tolerance, a virtue that I believe in very deeply. I’m not quite sure I have this figured out correctly, and it’s very sensitive subject matter. Bear with me and correct me (tolerantly) where I’m off.
I’m troubled by the expansion of tolerance into a demand for celebration. The obvious occasion comes when a friend or relative comes out as LGBT. This news may come as quite a shock, especially to people who cling to traditional sexual mores. They may struggle to react with kindness, to accept the person and to accommodate his or her new sexual identity. From what I’ve observed, though, kindness, acceptance and accommodation are often not enough. What is required is affirmation, genuine celebration of the LGBT self. And if the relative or friend can’t truly celebrate? That is felt as a deep offense.
Hardly anyone would insist that all must celebrate their political opinions, tastes in food, and choices in child rearing. But sexual and gender identity is a matter of discovery, not choice, say those who come to a new understanding of themselves. This is who I am–and you must embrace who I am.
No doubt this insistence is also based on the experience of being discriminated against. LGBT people often feel battered. Someone who has painfully found the way to a new self-understanding may say: if you can’t rejoice with me in my new-found freedom, I want nothing to do with you. It’s too painful.
I’m focusing on LGBT, but the demand for affirmation extends to others. Oddly, I think people of orthodox faith often have similar feelings. When they encounter those who think they are fanatics and nuts, some cry foul and complain that they are persecuted. It’s hard to be part of a misunderstood minority, especially when identity in that minority means life to you.
We want to be loved, and in some sense we deserve to be loved.
I think, however, that the insistence on affirmation demands too much. For one thing, you’re insisting that your new self-understanding is the only way to interpret your identity. Yet it’s far from unknown for people to declare a sexual identity and later change their mind. (It’s the same with religious identity.) LGBT identity requires interpretation of feeling and experience. Someone else can question the interpretation–particularly someone who knows the person well, such as a parent. And those doubts will make that person less than celebrative. That’s not necessarily intolerance.
There’s also the extension of identity into lifestyle–as in, I’m LGBT, therefore I must live an LGBT life and you must affirm it. (Or, I’m Catholic and don’t believe in birth control, so you must treat my beliefs as inviolable in public policy.) But one may disagree about what lifestyle should accompany a certain identity. In an entirely different realm, some deaf activists insist that signing, not lip reading or speech, is at the core of true deaf identity. They revile those who teach deaf children to lip read or to speak. Others consider them wrong, though, because (among other reasons) they prevent deaf children from communicating with their own parents and siblings. One can acknowledge that there are good arguments for the signing-only point of view, without accepting that it’s necessarily part of deaf identity.
Most fundamentally, however, no one is required to celebrate every aspect of another person’s core identity. It’s possible to regard a state of life as irreversible, and yet unfortunate. One may love the amputee but regret the amputation. One may celebrate the life of an autistic child, rejoicing in unusual gifts, and yet still wish for a cure. Some may find my white skin and blue eyes creepy and off-putting. I regret that, but I cannot insist that they learn to love white skin before I will have anything to do with them. If they will treat me respectfully, I will do the same to them.
Tolerance, that essential virtue for civility and civilization, is not a virtue for the New Creation. It is for this messy, troubled and sinful creation. Tolerance doesn’t help people who see the world in the same way, it helps people who have core disagreements. Its work is not to obliterate those differences, but to enable us to live together in peace and with dignity despite those differences.
Someone who comes out as LGBT should be honored as a human being made in the image of God, should be treated fairly and without discrimination, should be, in fact, loved. And vice versa. Those who hold the wrong ideas about LGBT should be honored as human beings made in the image of God, should be treated fairly and without discrimination, should be loved, difficult as that may be. Tolerance speaks to our relationships with people whose views we abhor and whose nature we cannot appreciate.