Liberty and Tolerance
I’ve been thinking about a couple words lately: Liberty and Tolerance. My kids were completing a book to become “Junior Rangers” at a National Park, and there was a question they were supposed to ask someone: What does liberty mean to you?
My daughter asked me. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of: “The freedom to do what I think is best without the government running my life.” I would add that it’s the freedom to think however I want, and to express those thoughts as long as I’m not calling for violence toward others.
Webster’s Dictionary defines liberty as “the quality or state of being free…freedom from arbitrary or despotic control; the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges,” etc.
Thinking about this has brought to mind the word tolerance. Over two decades ago, “tolerance” emerged as a buzzword in our society. I recall numerous admonitions to tolerance when I was a public school teacher, including lesson plan suggestions, etc.
So, what does tolerance mean? Returning to my dictionary, I read, “the capacity to endure what is difficult or disagreeable without complaining.” If I’m willing to tolerate you, it connotes merely putting up with you. However, once segments of our culture started pushing “tolerance,” the meaning soon changed to not only tolerating someone/something, but approving of it/them. Once that took hold, it wasn’t long before “tolerance” morphed into celebrating and promoting the person/idea.
That’s quite a shift.
As disturbing as that is, in just the past few years, there’s been a genuinely terrifying development: Not only is everyone expected to approve of and promote certain people/ideas that the powers that be have decided need to be approved and promoted, but if they DON’T, then theyare not to be tolerated. If your viewpoint differs from what some people have decided is right, you cannot be allowed to express those ideas.
Universities, once places that thrived on debate and the open exchange of ideas, now routinely ban speakers with whom they disagree from appearing on their campuses and expressing their viewpoints. Some government officials have even called for the harassment of people who don’t fall in line. One governor recently banned official travel of state officials to another state whose policies were deemed intolerant. That isn’t just ironic—it’s scary.
Government officials are harassed in restaurants; their homes are the site of threatening protests; in Europe it’s become fashionable to throw milkshakes at public figures with whom they disagree (is it me, or does that sound like something a kid would do?).
In justifying this behavior, another word is twisted: hate. Apparently, if you disagree with the wrong viewpoint, you’re expressing hate. The official definition of hate? “Intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury; extreme dislike or antipathy.”
In the 1990s, we saw something new: “Hate crimes.” I’m sorry, but isn’t pretty much any crime a hate crime? If someone beats you up, what’s the difference between whether it’s a “hate crime” or just a garden-variety crime? The answer, of course, is what group the attacker belongs to, and what group the victim belongs to. If the groups can’t promote an agenda, it’s just a crime, but if some sort of societal change can possibly be fomented, then it’s time unfurl the “hate crime” banner.
Just today I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Reject Hate.” I couldn’t agree more. But are our worldviews and political opinions blinding us to just who the haters are?
If words like “tolerance” and “hate” can be twisted so much, what about “liberty”? Do we admit that liberty is a casualty of this disturbing trend, or do we change the meaning of that word as well?
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