Tolerance: The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.
OK, I’ve defined tolerance. The question is how much of it is there and is there a limit on how much of tolerance can exist? Tolerance may be zero sum game. The more of it in one area, the less in another. Allow me to consider it as it pertains to a host of issues. They are discussed in no systematic order, rather just as they occur to me and my discussion pertains mainly to the US.
Religion has been around at least as long as human consciousness. Over the last three millennia religion has become more nuanced and sophisticated, but so have the arguments of those opposed to religious beliefs. Intolerance as applied to religion was among the different ones. Today the intolerance comes from those who have eschewed religion and who direct their intolerance against religion in general and spread this intolerance to as many public spaces as can be occupied. Islam is the only religion spared the intolerance of the atheist. Fear and cowardice are the likely motives for this abjuration. The Book of Mormon is a musical comedy as well as a sacred text. Imagine the reaction if several Broadway types made a musical called The Koran. No need for speculation, such a theatrical event is an impossibility. Looking at religion as a whole I can see no net gain for tolerance today as compared to the era of the Spanish Inquisition.
The modern attitude to drugs is about as clear cut as a Mobius Strip. In olden days drug use was pretty much ignored except for alcohol which offended some engravers and several religions. Today everyone has an opinion about drugs which when combined yield an inedible pudding. The same people who hate tobacco and nicotine seem to love marijuana and its derivatives. This view, of course makes no sense. The simple fact is that consuming drugs for purely recreational reasons is far more likely than not to cause harm. That doesn’t mean I can’t understand the pleasure derived from an occasional cigar or a glass of fine brandy, though neither holds any interest for me. But much of an individual’s strongly held views on drug use are apt to be based on bias or misinformation. Alcohol abuse is considered a disease by some and and a crime if connected to the use of a car. Most people don’t know how to classify nonmedical opioid use. Overall, it’s hard to say that tolerance of drug use has changed much over the centuries – a mind altering muddle.
Anybody remember hobos? Today they don’t move around, live on the streets, and are called homeless. Mencken in his The American Language distinguished between hobos and bums as follows: “Tramps and hobos are commonly lumped together, but see themselves as sharply differentiated. A hobo or bo is simply a migrant laborer; he may take some longish holidays, but sooner or later he returns to work. Lower than either is the bum, who neither works nor travels, save when impelled to motion by the police.” Accordingly, those whom we call homeless would be called bums rather than hobos by Mencken. The Supreme Court recently affirmed the right of the homeless to sleep on the street. So I guess we’d have to conclude that when it comes to those without domiciles that we’re more tolerant, unless they’re sleeping in front of one of our houses or in our neighborhood. Forced acceptance of a distasteful event probably doesn’t qualify as an increase in general toleration. Hence, no net gain – rather a local one if you live in an enlightened city.
Crime and punishment. Here we definitely seem more gentle than our distant forebearers. The rack, the iron maiden, and the public stock are nowhere to be seen. The first two never existed in the US. Capital punishment, even in Texas, is infrequent and never public. While one could argue that tolerance for bad behavior is increasing, the large prison population in the US indicates otherwise. The US has both the largest number of people incarcerated both by total number and when measured per capita. I suspect, however, that a lot of countries don’t report accurate data. How many people are really imprisoned in China or Russia or North Korea? In 1925 there were 80 prisoners per 100,000 people in the US. Today there are 716 per 100k. So either we have a lot more bad people than we did a century ago or we are less tolerant of behaviors for which we will jail people. So, I should conclude that tolerance in this area has gone down. Incidentally, the use of private prisons has been blamed for the high rate of incarceration in the US, but only 8.5 % of inmates in the US are in private jails.
Free speech is guaranteed by our first amendment. Yet it is under attack by those who profess to be our most enlightened. The academy is the most repressive censor of unpopular opinions. Try wearing a MAGA hat on just about any college campus; you’ll be lucky to escape with all of your anatomy. People who deviate from the proper opinion are not tolerated in the groves of academe. The more elite the college, the more repressive of speech that is deemed hateful or harmful. Oceans of real or computer ink have been spilled describing the fragility of our current generation of undergraduates.
The restriction of expression has extended to the very words used to manifest expression. The most forbidden words that only recently were offensive to almost everyone are now as commonplace as ignorance. The use of relatively simple words like pronouns has become a minefield. I am often asked by organizations and groups with which I have had a long association what my preferred pronoun is. I either answer “dummy” or end the association – usually the latter. All of a sudden out of nowhere or by magic everyone has become Dionysius Thrax. We’ve become so enlightened that it takes only a single sentence to offend half the population and it doesn’t matter what the sentence is about – a recipe for liverwurst will do. Even sign language is likely to offend people who don’t understand it.
Ring Lardner’s slice of dialogue seems apt for the times. (I eliminated the dialect spelling and added a question mark.):
Are you lost daddy? I asked tenderly.
Shut up he explained.
The list of forbidden words grows exponentially. ‘Man’ heads the list that triggers shame, weakness, insecurity, remorse, outrage, paranoia, trembling, sweating, cramps, rhinorrhea, nystagmus, borborygmi, and nocturia among a longer list of terribles. Incidentally, I thought Trigger was a horse. ‘Man’ is just a three letter word. Its (another disconnected pronoun) five syllable brother (also a bad word) ‘masculinity’ is enough to cause alopecia universalis totalis. The desired end result is total silence – no need to worry about free speech in the future.
This topic is too long for one article, so I’ll continue this study in one or more subsequent posts. I’ll end with just a brief word on climate change, or whatever the approved descriptor is today. The issue is harder to handle than a rabid skunk. People seem to either deny the existence of any change in climate – it’s always changing, the role of humans in this change is difficult to precisely define – or they are worse than Henny Penny and are certain that the world will end before the next recession. Sober analysis which includes both the definition of the problem and the best way to address it are virtually impossible to find.
To be continued…