Being open-minded towards closed-minded people

#philosophy#politics#free speech

Tim Kye

This doesn't specifically apply to the Brandon Eich saga, but it's come up a lot lately in comments regarding that situation. The idea that being open-minded means being open to everyone, including closed-minded people. Some might call it "being tolerant of intolerance."

I think this is somewhat related to the concept that if someone speaks an opinion, because they have a right to speak it (under the 1st Amendment), that they have a right not to suffer an ill will for it. That nobody should disagree with them, or call them out on their opinion, because doing so is "chilling" free speech.

They aren't directly related, but I hear them come up in similar scenarios and from similar people. Since I partially addressed the latter in my last blog post about Eich, I'm going to focus on the former today.

Before I try to analyze anything I want to define my terms.

I think open-mindedness is the willingness to consider new ideas, most importantly the idea that you might be wrong. The important distinction here is that considering does not equal accepting. You can be open-minded by making an impartial judgment about an idea before you reject that idea. Being open-minded does not require you to believe new ideas.

I think tolerance is a bit tougher, since it has many common use connotations that don't all apply to the tolerance of social and political beliefs. I think it is sufficient to say that tolerance is patience and/or acceptance of the beliefs of other people in social situations with those people. But it's important to note that tolerance is a spectrum, it isn't binary. You can be lightly or heavily tolerant of different beliefs, or completely intolerant of some.

So lets go back to our original problem. We phrased it two different ways, and I want to address both of them.

Being open-minded to closed-minded people

This one is actually pretty straightforward, working with our previous definition. It really doesn't matter that the person you are being open-minded towards is closed-minded. You are being open-minded if you give their ideas a fair evaluation, whether they reciprocate or not. Once you have fairly considered their position you can determine that you do or do not agree with them. Disagreeing does not mean you are not being open-minded. Being open-minded does not require you to believe anything; it only requires that you do not unfairly reject ideas before actually thinking about them and weighing the evidence or arguments that apply.

This bears repeating: being open-minded does not mean agreeing with everyone. You can firmly disagree with someone and be open-minded at the same time.

Being tolerant of intolerant people

This is not straightforward at all. As I said before, tolerance is a spectrum. Your level of tolerance is going to fall somewhere between Hitler and Ghandi (probably), and "tolerance" is a very large area within that space. Whether or not a given level of tolerance is "tolerant" is very much going to depend on the person and their individual perspective. I am sure someone thinks Ghandi is intolerant; and because we are working with a flexible, relative definition then as long as they are consistent it's going to be hard to change their mind.

So I'd like to take another tactic here. I'd like everyone to admit that tolerance should have limitations. There aren't a lot of people out there that would tolerate the kind of hate that Hitler perpetrated on the Jewish people in Europe. There aren't a lot of people that would tolerate the Jim Crow laws anymore (though I am sure there are more than I would like). I am using extreme examples to make a point, I am not trying to say that Brandon Eich is as bad as either of these examples. My point is that even most people who would consider themselves very tolerant have a limit. It's not a reasonable response to say that their behavior is intolerant; you dilute the meaning of "intolerance" past usefulness when you apply it in black and white terms like that.

We have to determine for ourselves how much we are going to tolerate, and as soon as we do then the people on the other side of that line are going to say we stopped too soon. So what is the argument here? When someone say's that you should be tolerant of their beliefs, what are they asking for?

I think they are asking for one of two things (there might be more, but these two are what I am going to focus on).

  1. They are asking for equal treatment. When the civil rights movement asked for tolerance of black people, they were asking to be treated the same as white people. When the LGBT movement asks for tolerance, they are asking for the right to marry the people they love, the same as straight people.

  2. They are asking for differentiated treatment. When the segregation movement asked for the right to not allow black children to attend the same schools as white children, they were asking for children to be educated based on their race. When the anti gay marriage movement asks for legislation defining marriage as between one man and one woman, they are asking that adults be institutionalized based on their gender.

I think "tolerance" accurately applies to only one of these. Equality is tolerance, differentiation is the opposite.

When you ask me to "tolerate" your views on separation, you are asking me to accept that the right thing to do is to tolerate one group and not another. Your request is oxymoronic.

However, when I ask you to "tolerate" my views on equality, I am asking you to accept that the right thing to do is to treat all groups the same. My request is consistent.

I don't think tolerance means allowing everyone to treat people however they want. I don't think tolerance is letting white supremacists segregate black people, and I don't think tolerance is letting religious groups ban gays from marrying.