Although modern urban societies promote tolerance for the most part, there is a vocal minority who insist that they are entitled to more tolerance than others. Those of us who have read George Orwell’s Animal Farm recognize this logic. We know that it is hard to avoid inflicting our own notions of what is right and wrong on others, but we are also aware there is a danger inherent in the proposition that some equally unsubstantiated ideas are, by their nature, better than others. Unfortunately, those who feel entitled to more tolerance for their foibles or beliefs feel no pressure to prove their ideas are more valuable to society in a measurable way. They are better inherently, so they tell us, because crucially, they hold the beliefs.
The difficulty with this philosophical position—if that description doesn’t overly valorize such an unfounded knee-jerk reaction—is that its implications are very dangerous for both the one holding the belief and those they encounter who may not subscribe to their ideas. The logical result, that their unfounded opinion is inherently more valuable than those held by others, is that all strongly held and unsubstantiated beliefs are now allowed. When the only criterion is the vehemence of the believer, any number of dangerous propositions become viable.
I think this way of perpetuating of our own privilege is deeply flawed. Tolerance is more than the table manners that Thoreau mentioned that kept us from each other’s throats. It is a wide intellectual net which pulls in all points of view for examination on the basis of some evidentiary criteria. It does not mean that anything goes, or that we should respect hatred or nonsense. It means that we are willing to evaluate the new idea the same as we would any other.
To make another comparison, this mentality presumes that one should honour all beliefs that exist without substantiation, but the logical consequence of this is that the KKK gets to decide how we should live. I don’t like their policies and view of the world, so I try to make sure I don’t share their willingness to oppress the views of others. Tolerance is not just an attitude we have toward those we like the views of, we must also, however difficult, extend this franchise to those who hold abhorrent views. Of course, their actions are a different matter.
Most people in the minority understand this. Perhaps because they have little or no power they understand that the entire society around them does not have to conform to their way of thinking. The people in power—and in western society that would be moneyed, white, and corporate—have no such qualms. Why should I make an effort to be tolerant, they unconcernedly ask themselves, when I don’t want to? If the truth be known, they don’t have to. That is one of the privileges of power, that they can deny any rationale that might lead them to understand the point of view of another, or to make a change in their own life. We see this most clearly in the justly famous racism exercises of Jane Elliott. The loudest to declaim and sabotage the exercise are those in power, for they feel unjustly put upon when the oppression they have meted out to others has come home to them.
This type of mentality is particularly fraught when it comes to science and unfounded belief systems. If someone were to declaim a particular piece of scientific discovery, such as the numerical value of Pi, they would find themselves laughed out of the room by the very people who are the strongest proponents of equally mad propositions. Children in most societies are brainwashed from birth to believe one thing and another but our scientific system is a powerful counter to this. We pay at least lip service to the notion that if someone cannot point to evidence to support their claim they don’t get entrance to the science club. The deluded, therefore, must be relegated to the fantasy and wishful thinking group.
Many people who belong to that group find any scientific criticism of their ways of thinking intolerable. Since they belong to dominant culture, they can demand special handling for their fantasies, even while they roundly dismiss the unsupported notions of another. What this means on the ground is that this group feels it can afford to be intolerant of others. Their beliefs take precedence over others, and if they feel put upon, it is the world that must change. Many people online will point out the truism that the reality of the world doesn’t change merely as a result of our beliefs, but for this group, that is not the problem. The problem as they see it is that the society around them refuses to change to accommodate them.
I knew a woman who was studying to be a minister, although few churches allow women to hold that position, and I thought she was extremely disrespectful of the beliefs held by others. She had an inkling that her beliefs were based on what she’d been taught—she didn’t go so far as call it brainwashing—but for the beliefs of others she had only derision. She told me of visiting the Krishas, and finding their holy site ridiculous. She giggled as she told about dolls which one could not turn your back to and therefore you had to exit the room backwards. I am not a great respecter of nonsense, but I believe in the right of people to fill their head as they wish. I found her certainty about her own beliefs, in the context of her utter disregard of the ideas of others, offensive. She seemed unable to see that her religion had its own doll hung on the wall, albeit a much more morbid representation, and they there were certain rules her belief system observed when it came to interacting with the figure of Jesus.
Such people bring their derision to their culture, and want their beliefs held up not to be questioned even while they belittle the beliefs of others. They want prayer in school, regardless of the beliefs or nonbelief of the students, so they try to manipulate the local school boards. They get books banned from school boards which do not deliver the message they want promulgated, and force others into schools which support their erroneous world view. They want the world to shift its thinking to follow their fantasy that dinosaurs and humans coexisted, so they lie about paleontological discoveries, and build monuments to ignorance like the creation museum in the benighted south of the United States.
They want human rights laws overturned for religious reasons, so the society must conform to their way of thinking. Gay people should not be allowed to vote, according to their cherry picked bible, so they try to force legislation that would prevent that. They want a government that governs for them, and promotes their way of thinking, so they see nothing wrong with forcing that upon their fellows.
This is at its root, exposes the failure of democracy. If there is more than merely the rule of the majority, if some other more evidence-based criteria were allowed to enter the public debate, then democracy has a good chance at working. Likewise, it works if the populace is literate and educated to think for themselves. But if their ignorance is combined with the lack of judgement concerning ways of understanding the world, then democracy becomes a large majority stick with which to beat the poor, the disenfranchised, those in minority, those finally who think differently or who disagree.
The problem with this way of thinking is that those engaged in the groupthink don’t actually care what other people want or what other values they have. And, since they aren’t susceptible to logic, or the use of scientific evidence, such arguments have no traction with them. As far as the brainwashing went in their own lives, they have plentiful proof of magic and the fantastic, and they care little that to transform society on that basis they need to conform to an actual rationale.
This is more than a logical error. This is also a danger to society. The online creation of the flying spaghetti monster and the church of scientology are useful examples in this case. If someone can merely create a belief system from whole cloth, in which the paint is so fresh that the plaster shows through, and then force that upon another, then the cracks of the system should be evident. If their rationale makes sense, that you do not require evidence and can though the exercise of power force that upon another, then they truly are slipping down the slope.
At the bottom of the slide lies the Klu Klux Klan and Dianetics, the Nazi purges of the thirties and forties and the denial of climate change. That way lies madness. If evidence is taken out of the equation, then any belief has equal weighting. My belief is old, they cry, but Hinduism is much older and how much weight does that argument hold with them. My belief has millions of adherents, they whine, but since when is the popularity of an ideology how we judge how to run a society. We have done that before, with Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany. My belief has a book, they claim. Don’t worry, they all do. My belief was what I was taught, they finally admit.
This is the crux of the matter. You have to realize that just because you were indoctrinated doesn’t mean the people who did that to you were correct. You parents also told you about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and provided you with some of the same proofs. That should suggest that not everything your parents believe, and not everything they have taught you, is true.
With the cultural blindness of privilege, the groupthinkers do not realize that with no evidence for their claim, their beliefs cannot take precedence over that of another, regardless of how much they wish that were the case. That means it behooves them to be tolerant of others. Even if their religion teaches intolerance, they should be careful. For by their own admission, once another ideology has more adherents, a book of its own, and some force in dominant society, someone with different views would be able to force them to conform to a new belief system. If they don’t throw their strength behind the argument that evidence matters, then they are looking straight into a future where another belief system supplants their own. In their mind, they have the truth, but many have thought that before, and many are the adherents to other religions who no longer exist as separate systems of thought.
The way it works intellectually is that they will brook no opposition. Since the existence of a deity of their description is patently true to them, they confound, stone, and otherwise torment all others who dare to use evidence to refute their weak arguments. They think the analogy argument of William Paley’s watch makes sense, and they scarcely dig any deeper than that.
They rejoice when their beliefs seem to be shored up by a scientific argument, but roundly dismiss any argument that does not support them. Intellectually dishonest as a group, their belief systems make them blind, ignorant, intolerant haters of both themselves and others. They cherry pick their bible, the findings of the immensely diverse scientific establishment, until every argument is an argument for their point of view.
Unfortunately, in western society, we are surrounded by this intolerance, and people who believe they have the right to dictate to others. They have the numerical superiority, and in their profound ignorance are not susceptible to logic. In the United States they have begun to hate Muslims, and since they are impenetrable to evidence and merely go with emotionalism and rigid belief systems, they therefore rejoice at the idea of banning them from the country. They relish the thought of thousands of their neighbours forced to leave their own country, or presumably convert, and still others prevented from entering. Because they have the idea that just because they believe something it must be true, they are perfectly willing to engrave their prejudice and ignorance on their fellows. They see nothing wrong in this. Since they are right, it only makes sense that we would listen to them when putting together policy.
It is a slippery slope, and like many slopes, it leads directly to a muddy bottom of deceit, wishful thinking, manipulation, and privilege. Unless we want the KKK to tell us how to live, however, we might want to rein in our more silly fantasies, and concentrate on those explanations of the natural world that when we point to them others can at least see what we are talking about.