Tolerance is not the enemy of progress; it’s the tool.
“Marriage has got historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman.” — Hillary Clinton
Reading both Dennis’s post on Brendan Eich and the threads that followed made me remember the only time I’ve ever bothered to write about boycotts here at OT.
It was a little over two years ago, shortly after the TLC television network gave into a boycott aimed at a show they had yet to air: All-American Muslim, a reality show about a typical American suburban family that also happened to be Islamic. The reason for this boycott? People were offended that it showed a Muslim family in a way that made them seem non-evil.
This is what I said then:
One of the odd byproducts of having my email address available to [Ordinary Times] readers is that I occasionally get emails requesting my support in this or that boycott. Many of them suggest that the targeted company has an indirect relationship to either George Soros or the Koch brothers. Others point out that this CEO or that Chairman of the Board belong to this political party or that religious group. In all of these cases, the boycotts in question are not engaged in curbing corporate malfeasance of any kind. Instead, each tries to eliminate groups of people from simultaneously (a) having different viewpoints from the boycotters and (b) making a living. The purpose of the boycott, then, is to either force others to state publicly that your beliefs are correct, or be unemployed for the foreseeable future…
If you support these types boycotts – passing on mass emails to all your Facebook friends – I seriously ask you to reconsider. A company illegally throwing toxic waste into your children’s drinking water is a fine reason to drive them out of business. A company having hired someone that has a different political view than you – or a different religious belief, or a different gender preference, or a different skin color – isn’t.
The boycott of Eich’s Mozilla boycott presents a problem that is in turns both similar and unlike the All-American Muslim boycott. Both represent a group attacking a business for — in a very indirect way — promoting an idea that was remarkably mainstream at the time. (As a reminder to those of us who were on the right side of history at the time, we lost the Prop 8 battle at the ballot box. What’s more, we lost pretty much everywhere else it came to a vote, including those initiatives held in Blue states.) Both used other corporations’ desire to avoid bad PR as the mechanism employed to ensure victory. Each looked to publically punish an idea and send a very public message to others who might also consider that idea. There were also differences, of course, the most obvious being that one boycott was clearly ushering in a new moral standard while the other was desperately clinging to one being pushed aside. And of course there is also this: Eich’s firing has a kind of poetic justice in a country where in too many places you can be fired just for being gay.
In the threads to Dennis’s post (which largely sided against his call for tolerance in the Eich case), one of the questions posed most often was some form of why? Why show tolerance for a CEO? Why allow to live-and-let-live with a rich, white member of the power elite, a man so privileged that he was blind to his own bigotry?
I thought I would share my own answer to that question of “why.”
OT contributors aside, the blogger who’s had the largest impact on my growth as a thinking person and a human being has been Ta-Nehisi Coates, hands down. (If you don’t already read him, you’re missing out — start now.) An African American whose father was a former Black Panther (the real kind, not the Fox News kind), Coates writes a lot about blacks in the United States. His eye toward history is keen; it is also often uncomfortably cutting. I’ve never been a history buff, but in the past few years Coates’s writings have compelled my to purchase and dive into Bloodlands, Battle Cry for Freedom, What God Hath Wrought, and (most recently) a rather healthy dose of James Baldwin.
Like a lot of white Atlantic readers (I’m guessing), Coates has challenged the way I think about the history of race in America. He argues quite convincingly that our story is not one of continually leaning more and more forward, but rather one of whites continually finding new ways to separate and subjugate blacks. After three years of reading him, I don’t know that I’m on the exact same page that he’s on because I remain far more optimistic about the future than does Coates. (In my mind, I can hear Ta-Nehisi’s voice in my head telling me as I write that my optimism is an illusion born of my being white. That voice might well be right.) Still, the lessons I’ve taken from Ta-Nehisi Coates and those thinkers he’s introduced me to are legion.
And one of the lessons he’s pointed me toward (I say “toward” because Coates himself might well disagree) is this: In a society where bigotry is alive and well, it is not enough to be equal in the eyes of the law. The law will be bent, stretched, and ignored to serve the will of those who were in power well before the law was made. The only way to find harmony (such as it can ever be) and justice for the disenfranchised (such as it can ever be) is through the difficult, purposeful, disciplined process of understanding one another and mutual tolerance.
Those who argue that the Brendan Eichs of the world be punished for having acted on mainstream thoughts surely must believe that history’s arc inherently bends toward justice. That because the law is quickly bending their way that they have already won the war for good. They gamble that their neighbors — who until just a few minutes ago were willing to force their GLBT bothers and sisters into second-class citizenry — would not, were they to feel threatened by a growing intolerance for anyone who once held beliefs that they themselves held, find new and more perniciously subtle ways to ensure GLBTs remain second-class citizens. They are wrong.
Tolerance, for most people, is something akin to mercy — a thing to be given to those who may not even deserve it out of the goodness of our hearts. And indeed, that is half the coin that is tolerance. The thing people rarely understand about tolerance is that same coin’s other side: that it is also a tool for self-survival.
And therein lies my own person reason for showing tolerance to Brendan Eich, or the owner of Chick-Fil-A, or anyone else we believe should take the role of sacrificial lamb that we may spare our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends who held the exact same beliefs at the exact same time. Or that we might donate time and money in 2016 to candidates that were throwing GLBTs under the bus far more publically — and therefore, arguably, doing more damage — at the exact same time that Eich was donating to Prop 8.
We shouldn’t offer tolerance for Brendan Eich’s sake. We should offer it for our own.
Is this fair, on some great cosmic level? No, it isn’t. Is the urge to get our pounds of flesh from those that made an entire class of people lesser in the eyes of the law and the community a reasonable one? Of course it is. Might it even be justice? Perhaps.
But our first responsibility should be to GLBTs openly living their lives to whatever degree of integration with society as they might wish. Our eyes should be on the prize where someone’s sexual orientation is never used in contrast with words like “mainstream,” “traditional,” or “normal,” anymore than blue eyes or red hair are. The answer to the problem of GLBT acceptance, I would argue, is not to throw those who were not as advanced in their thinking as early as us into some kind of metaphorical stock for the purposes of public humiliation. Rather, it is allowing people to witness first hand, up close in neighborhoods and workplaces, that people who are GLBT are just that: people. Acting to further divide our communities — and to make those divides even more bitter — is the enemy of that understanding.
Fair or not, there is only one path that takes us to that promised land of GLBT acceptance: tolerance.