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When Wright is wrong: The virtue of tolerance

“Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” -Ayaan Hirsi AliI received an invitation last week to attend a lecture at my former seminary given by Dr. Jeremiah Wright. This is the same Jeremiah Wright who was at one time Barack Obama’s pastor. But after years of listening to the anti-semitic, race-baiting, fear- mongering, shockingly insensitive remarks the President was finally moved to criticize Wright, and even resign his membership at the church, saying he was “saddened” and “outraged” by Wright’s behavior. Wright predictably blamed Obama’s decision on the Jews.I responded to the invitation with an email asking for clarification about the nature and intention of the seminary. What was the purpose of bringing Dr. Wright on campus? How, I wondered, was this beneficial to anyone outside of Dr. Wright? Was he going to apologize at the outset for his years of intolerance? Was he going to be challenged about his teachings, and the consequences of his hate speech by his peers? Was he going to be held accountable at all? Or would he receive a tacit endorsement by the school in the form of a bully pulpit and a stipend.I’m still waiting for a response. But whatever the answer, the whole incident has got me thinking about the virtue of tolerance. Tolerance as a virtue is deeply connected to freedom, and defending the rights of the under-represented. Tolerance has rightly been identified with freedom of speech, freedom to dissent, freedom of the press, and religious freedoms. Historically, intolerance has been about the powerful crushing, silencing, oppressing those who do not have as much power, economically, politically, religiously. And this threat certainly remains. But a more subtle yet equally deangerous threat to tolerance is growing in this politically correct, morally insecure society of ours; passivity.Too often nowadays, what passes as “tolerance” is in reality a lazy acceptance of bad behavior. Maybe this is connected to guilt from past abuses against tolerance. Maybe this is connected to fear of being branded “intolerant.” Maybe it’s connected to an indifference about anything beyond one’s comfort zone. Maybe it’s connected to the false belief that progressive equals permissive. Maybe it’s all of the above. But the result is tolerance as a personality trait, instead of a virtue; a way of “getting along” instead of “getting better.”“Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.”Is there anything you can’t, or more accurately shouldn’t tolerate? Is there any behavior you’d consider a serious enough threat to goodness that you simply cannot stay silent? Is freedom only about what one can do, or is it also about what one should do? And what responsibility do you have to society? You may have guessed by now that I am not a fan of Jeremiah Wright. I don’t like his angry, paranoid worldview. I don’t like his assaultive, abusive style. And I don’t like the ways he plays on the deepest fears of human beings. But the virtue of tolerance says he has the right to speak his mind and use his freedom however he chooses within the bounds of the law, and that this right should be protected whether I like it or not.What tolerance does not say is that his malice should go unchallenged by reason, and truth, and love. And that his message of fear should be met with a shrug. Tolerance is a virtue that protects against abuses of power. But it’s greatest enemy is weakness.  -Ross Porter, Ph.D.Question for reflection: Where do you see the virtue of tolerance being compromised?

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