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Tolerating Intolerance: Listening More and Justice by Degrees

Thought experiment: There is an old man who lives in a home that’s been in his family for generations, which just happens to be directly across the street from a public park with a high amount of daily traffic. Displayed on the front of this man’s home are signs displaying hateful misogynistic messages that said wildly offensive things and are in clear view of children and adults. What can you do?

In order to save rhetorical space, outside of some local-statute legal trickery there is not much anything could do to stop this hypothetical curmudgeon from broadcasting his thoughts no matter how distasteful. In fact, the only thing that could happen is that a person or group of people could talk to the man directly and convince him to remove the signs. And since it is safe to assume that someone so angry about something that he’d write it on his house, you’d have to change his mind about the issue.

Sometime after the “Golden Age” of Civil Rights in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s almost as if the most passionate believers in “the cause” all decided that everyone they’d ever convince was already on their side. Rather than change the hypothetical old man’s mind these folks would just want to rip them down and call it a job-well-done.

The reaction to the story about a woman posting an unsolicited nude photo from a man she met on a dating site has surprised me. There is no question that the man did something wrong, but posting his nude picture online could destroy his entire life. On the scale of justice, the punishment far supersedes the “crime.” Yet, the overwhelming majority opinion is that this guy had it coming and deserves only bad things.

Interestingly, if the story had the gender roles reversed, the woman would surely also be thought of as a fool or a slut (better or worse than “rapey?”), but the man would most certainly be seen as scumbag for posting her naked photo whether it was unsolicited or not. And he would be, because posting a nude photo of someone who wronged you is the very definition of “revenge porn.”

When women say things like this photo, controversial art, or those aforementioned hypothetical house-signs are misogynistic and make them uncomfortable, their feelings should always be listened to and considered. Yet, simply because something makes a person uncomfortable, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will change or the offending person should be ostracized from polite society.

Individual discomfort is unavoidable in a free society, and I’d even argue in the entire human condition. So rather than screaming those who make you feel uncomfortable into submission, use empathy. Broad hatred usually has a very specific (personal) source, which when identified could lead to that person ultimately dealing with their issues. Conversely, by highlighting how the statements/etc. made you feel adds the context of consequence to a discussion that was previously “You can’t say that!”/”Yes I can!”

There is no way to eradicate hate, intolerance, or discomfort completely from society. Yet, by having these “national discussions” in the same hyper-divided and vicious tenor as modern politics will only ensure that any progress being made societally will come to a screeching halt. You can’t legislate Elliot Rodgers, Cliven Bundys, or even Donald Sterlings out of existence. All we can hope to do is treat everyone with the same principles of fairness and justice equally. We have to listen just as much as we talk and ensure that our side of the argument is always the more appealing. The change will come.


Photo “New Day” by Jenny Downing via Flickr Creative Commons

About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.