A now-ubiquitous part of culture is tolerance; but not tolerance in its traditional form, that is, the ability to disagree with something and yet permit it to take place. Tolerance, now, is to do whatever one pleases and be able to flaunt that whatever with impunity. And while this would seem to be a timely place to discuss major political events, I’m not going there. My concern is more with what this recapitulated tolerance is doing to discourse in a supposedly free society, in an arena that has flourished because of the concepts of liberty applied to the unabridged flow of information via technological advancement: the internet and social media.
I offer two examples, one lighter, the other more serious, both with nearly identical conclusions that give me great pause (and the title of this entry) for upcoming generations:
Some time ago, I had a friend on a social platform who is quite vocal in his love for the Green Bay Packers. He married into family from Minnesota, a family of staunch Minnesota Vikings fans. (One may rightly question God’s plan there, but that’s another conversation.) Those of you who are even remotely familiar with the NFL know that the Packer-Viking rivalry is amongst the most bitter feuds in not only football, but professional sports. So, when the Brett Favre drama began to put the fires of rivalry out with approximately 500 million barrels of gasoline, this friend posted some good-natured ribbing on his profile page. And I, as a committed Packer supporter, obliged with some anti-Viking rhetoric. Shortly thereafter, his family began posting surprisingly aggressive anti-Packer replies. Before long, this became a full-on flame war, with reason thrown out the window and some harsh ad hominem coming back at me. What was one became one and his spouse, then his brother and spiraled out of control from there.
When I privately contacted my friend, asking what happened, he replied telling me that this was his in-laws I was dealing with and that I had no business being involved there. Surprised by this, I replied that this was posted publicly and they were getting nasty, which somehow became a one-person symposium on how I hadn’t matured since college and was way out of line. (Which I wasn’t, except for being in a flame war in the first place, for which winning is like getting a ribbon for having the loudest fart.)
Secondly, in the same arena, there seems to be a growing trend of people who would otherwise detest relativism, but openly post what amounts to arguments for anti-arguments, advocating discussion without debate, holding with disregard anyone who is either convinced of the surety of their position or has the audacity to disagree. When I pointed this out to a friend, it was met with tepid response, then bitter sarcasm (which would typically be welcomed but for that context, where it just came off as juvenile) then it moved into a series of private messages, where we had reasonable and affable conversation about the subject matter.
Then a relative, who wasn’t involved in the original conversation, showed up and went on the rampage, telling me to leave them alone and, after the fair proposition that we did not know one another, proceeded to accuse me of being arrogant and stupid, that Jesus hated me and that people like me were the reason she wouldn’t become a Christian, all with profanity and poor grammar. I responded, politely and firmly, that she would have been better off leaving it at that we didn’t know each other, and that her response was uncalled for, just because I happen to disagree with conversations that go nowhere and the blatant mischaracterization people tend to have toward people of my persuasion that was also going on in the original thread.
[EDITORIAL ASIDE: Why are Evangelicals so committed to the notion that people–in this case, fellow ‘Evangelicals’–who engage in vibrant debate are somehow doing so to artificially inflate their ego? When they do so, are they not becoming what they proclaim to hate; isn’t this the definitive case of either passing judgment or false humility?]
I figured that my friend would like to know, and she apologized. I then copied her on my response, which had received more virulence in kind, and she asked if I was in conversation with her. She then asked me to stop (it was a pretty obvious one-off in the first place) and then defended her family from my callousness to this person’s life and past (something I know nothing about, and is a smoking gun example of a red herring. beside the point.)
Perhaps I’m just weird, and I’m open to that proposition, but I am certain of these two things: if I overstepped my bounds and went after someone in a less-than-classy manner anywhere, my family would not defend me, but call me out on my classiness; and I have smacked down members of my own family who have been out of line.
Western Civilization is underpinned by the pursuit of truth and the avoidance of falsehood. It is also rooted in the free exchange of ideas and concepts, built upon the foundational components of logic, grammar and rhetoric. We converse to understand one another, the world around us and move toward further understanding, what the Greeks called veritas. Truth. If we substitute that with the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of truth, two people who talk, ultimately, to hear themselves talk and, ultimately, merely tolerate the sound of another’s voice and as such do not listen, but hear, then we are not talking about meaningful communication at all.
It has already been said countless times elsewhere in myriad ways that society preaches tolerance, but is intolerant of intolerance, i.e. open disagreement, and as such remains intolerant. It sounds nice, but it’s like the KITT car at Universal Studios, it’s awesome to see, but it has no engine, is bolted to the ground and doesn’t actually talk to you, though some of Hasselhoff’s chest hair may still be wedged in the bucket seat.
What is most disconcerting of all this is the fact that I thought of the Hoff’s chest hair that culture is now primarily concerned with defending a type set than pursuing truth. This mentality is seen as part of our revulsion toward the senselessness of gang war, violence and racial hatred, and rightly so. It is also seen in the hesitance many Americans have toward new religious movements, sects and cults.
But this same mentality has also infected rural, center-right, religious Middle America, which means it is not a stretch to say that it has pervaded America as a whole: my family member stepped out of line, and it’s your fault. It’s no different than you crossed a street, therefore we must beat you; or you disagree with the policies of Barack Obama, therefore I say you are racist.
The national motto, translated, is ‘out of many, one’. In many ways, the American experiment was considered to be the halcyon moment for Western Civilization, a free society under the rule of law, and not the whims of a person. I suggest that what is happening here should be very troubling for us: from one, many. We are fragmenting as a society, reducing ourselves to tribal, provincial sub-sects who view others with disdain, if not outright hatred. We are becoming barbarians, more interested in protecting our own than pursuing truth or avoiding falsehood, whether it is in fandom’s hatred for a rival sports team and its fans, the political chasm that has paralyzed all sorts of policy, conversation and actual work, or even in the ability to disagree with a friend.
What is happening is truly cultural postmodernism, but does anyone recognize from whence the freedom comes when we leave the established parameters of modernism? If we are subject to people and not principle, then we are already not free, and justice has gone to the wayside. We just don’t feel the restriction of the shackles yet, merely the anxiety of saying the wrong thing or crossing the wrong street.
To which I ask, exactly what is the difference?