Tolerating the Intolerable? (Or: Why We Should Not be Tolerant of Chick-fil-A)
by Lindsey Mason
In our cosmopolitan society, what does it mean to be tolerant? Should we always be tolerant of others’ opinions? Or are we sometimes required to be intolerant? I believe not all tolerance is morally required. I believe there are opinions of which we ought not be tolerant. I believe there are opinions we ought to criticize, reject, and discourage. Below I will argue for which kinds of opinions we ought to tolerate and which kinds we ought not to tolerate. The conclusion of my argument is that we should not be tolerant of Chick-fil-A.
This essay on tolerance is spurred by recent remarks by Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy. Recently in the news, Cathy said the following two things: (1) “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.” For many, this implied that Cathy was taking a stand against any non-traditional marriage, including gay marriage. Cathy also expressed his belief on the matter in a radio show, saying, (2) “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,'” Cathy said. “And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.” This second quotation clarified the first, thus making it obvious that Cathy is against gay marriage.
Cathy’s comments have sparked interest from conservatives and liberals. The predominant conservative line seems to be in agreement with Cathy for the “traditional” and “biblical” definition of marriage, and the common liberal line seems to oppose Cathy in favor of gay marriage. Liberals are vowing to boycott the restaurant in protest, sometimes going too far as when mayors of Boston and Chicago said they would not allow Chick-fil-A business into their cities. Conservatives are gathering support for Chick-fil-A, and they are even calling for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on August 1st.
But the most troubling—and frankly confused—part of this whole debate is over the notion of “tolerance.” Throughout the World Wide Web, I’ve read several authors accuse liberals of committing the very crime of which they’re accusing conservatives. Liberals are accusing conservatives of being intolerant of homosexuality; conservatives respond by accusing liberals of being intolerant of their biblical-based definition of marriage. For example, an article by Denny Burk is entitled, “Chick-fil-A and the Irony of the Tolerance Police” to suggest that liberals are supposed to be policing tolerance, but are here showing their very intolerant hand. Ken Coleman (the host of the radio show on which Cathy talks of “God’s judgment”) points out a similar “irony” when he writes: “Increasingly, we see a well-oiled publicity machine that is redefining tolerance as, ‘either you agree with me or you need to button your lips.’ Those who throw the labels of intolerance and bigotry at those who share an opposing opinion are ironically modeling a glaring lack of tolerance.” So the objection to liberals in this debate seems to be that they’re being hypocrites. They’re accusing Chick-fil-A of being intolerant, and yet showing their own intolerance—the very thing they’re against.
I believe that this diagnosis of the problem is incorrect. There are certain differences of opinion we ought to be tolerant of, but that does not mean we ought to be tolerant of anything someone else believes, says, or does. Consider two kinds of disagreements. Suppose Sally believes in God and Joe does not believe in God. Because of Sally’s beliefs, she acts in certain ways: she prays regularly, she attends church services, and she congregates with fellow believers, etc. Because of Joe’s beliefs, he doesn’t engage in any of these activities. Sally and Joe disagree about whether God exists, and their disagreement affects how they each live their own lives. But notice: Sally’s belief that God exists doesn’t interfere with the way Joe wants to live his life. Simply believing that God exists doesn’t harm Joe in any way; it doesn’t take away any of Joe’s freedoms, and it doesn’t make Joe’s life worse in any way. Similarly, Joe’s belief that God doesn’t exist doesn’t interfere with Sally’s life. In such a case, Joe ought to be tolerant of Sally’s different belief. He also ought to continue to let her go to church, pray, etc., if that’s what she wants to do. Similarly, Sally ought to tolerate Joe’s belief. She ought to continue to let Joe live his life without praying or going to church. Sally ought to be tolerant of Joe’s different belief. The point of the example is this: in a situation such as the one encountered by Sally and Joe—where the disagreement over whether God exists does not harm anyone or take away anyone’s freedoms—everyone ought to be tolerant.
Now consider a different kind of case. Suppose Jefferson believes that it’s morally permissible to own slaves. Because of this belief, Jefferson in fact owns several slaves, and he treats them as if they are animals. He buys them and sells them like cattle; he beats them; he impregnates their wives. In general, his belief that slavery is morally permissible entails that he believes that a certain class of people are subhuman, deserving fewer rights and privileges. Tubman, however, disagrees with Jefferson. She believes owning slaves is morally impermissible—we shouldn’t do it. So, Tubman does not engage in any of Jefferson’s activities of owning slaves, beating them, buying and selling them like cattle, or impregnating their wives. Instead, she believes that all people deserve equal rights, and that no human being should be treated as subhuman. Jefferson and Tubman disagree about the issue of slavery, and this disagreement affects how they live their lives. But notice a difference here compared to Sally and Joe above: Jefferson’s belief does interfere with the way Tubman wants to live her life. Jefferson believes he should be allowed to capture and enslave Tubman, thus taking away her freedoms. He believes that Tubman is subhuman, deserving fewer rights than he enjoys. Should Tubman be tolerant of Jefferson’s beliefs? No, she should not. She should fight against people who believe and act as Jefferson does. She should be intolerant of anyone who believes that another human being could be his slave. Tubman’s intolerance of the differing opinion is not only morally acceptable—it is morally required. When someone has a certain belief, and that belief takes away the life, liberty, or property of another, then that belief ought not to be tolerated. Jefferson’s belief takes away the liberty of others. And so Jefferson’s belief ought not to be tolerated. Sally’s belief from above does not take away the life, liberty, or property of anyone else—not even Joe—and so her belief ought to be tolerated. That is, we ought to be tolerant of others’ beliefs so long as those beliefs do not take away the life, liberty, or property of others.
Now back to Chick-fil-A. When Cathy expresses his opinion that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, is his belief more like Sally’s or Jefferson’s? What I mean by that is, does Cathy’s belief attempt to take away anyone else’s liberty?
I think Cathy’s belief is more like Jefferson’s (while obviously to a lesser degree). By saying that marriage is only between a man and a woman, one is taking away another person’s liberty. One is denying a gay man the right and privilege to join in marriage with another man. One is denying a lesbian woman the right and privilege to join in marriage with another woman. One is denying a bisexual man the right and privilege to join in marriage with another man. And so on for bisexual women and for people who are transgendered. There is a whole population of people here who are denied something—marriage—so that Cathy and others in agreement with him can hold a belief. Cathy’s belief is not the kind of belief that calls for tolerance. We should not stand by, idly tolerant of others’ beliefs when those beliefs take away the liberty of someone else.
Notice, however, that when someone believes that gay marriage is morally permissible, that does not take away anyone else’s liberty. I’m not saying that every minister/priest/preacher has to actually marry homosexual couples. They can choose not to participate in the actual marrying. I’m not saying that every man has to go out, divorce his wife, and marry another man now. That would be absurd. Allowing gay marriage is not to demand gay marriage for everyone. It is time to acknowledge that allowing Ben and Shaun to get married does not take away anyone else’s life, liberty, or property. In fact, it doesn’t affect anyone else’s life at all. So, if tolerance is ever called for, it’s called for in the case of proponents of gay marriage, and not for those who argue against it. We ought to be tolerant of people who believe gay marriage should be allowed because that belief does not take away anyone’s liberty. We ought to be intolerant of people who believe gay marriage is wrong because that belief takes away someone’s freedom to marry whomever he or she loves.
My goal here is quite narrow. It is to show that the liberal position of criticizing Cathy is not hypocritical. Tolerance is called for only when the belief or action being tolerated is different from your own, yet it is not taking away anyone else’s life, liberty, or property. The belief that gay marriage is wrong should not be tolerated since it takes away other people’s liberty. The liberal can hold this position—the position of not tolerating beliefs that take away others’ liberty—while agreeing that many other instances of tolerance ought to be encouraged. One need not be tolerant of unjustified intolerance. Cathy is the one being intolerant in the morally objectionable way, not the liberal.
Lindsey Mason is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Ohio State University.