Tolerance, Intolerance, and Disingenuity

What happens when tolerance meets intolerance? Won’t intolerance always prevail?

Consider a mythical, isolated island nation we’ll call Fractia. The island’s population divides neatly into two factions: the Tolecrats and the Stricticans. The basic philosophy of the Tolecrats is that strength comes through diversity of opinion. The Stricticans believe that strength can only come from rigorously following the One True (Strictican) Way.

Should the Tolecrats gain the political and social upper hand, their belief in tolerance means that they would allow the Stricticans to thrive. Under those conditions, it is quite likely that, at some point, the Stricticans will gain political and social power. Their agenda, once in power, will be to suppress the Tolecrats, as the Stricticans’ philosophy sees no value (in fact sees threat) in the Tolecrats’ continued existence. The ranks of the Tolecrats will diminish (through forced attrition, if the Stricticans are fanatic enough), thus cementing the Stricticans’ hold on power.

We all know that it doesn’t always work out that way. From the Christians in pre-Constantine Rome to the American civil rights movements, from the French Resistance to members of a nuclear family that survive an autocratic patriarch, movements of tolerance have survived and ultimately been able to throw off the shackles of intolerant authorities and thrive.

How this is accomplished is often the stuff of story and legend: heros, brave fighters, martyrs to a worthy cause. I submit, however, that there is another aspect to fighting for tolerance which gets short shrift in our mythology. Underground movements fighting for freedom and tolerance must always, at some point, resort to deception. There is a place for public displays of resistance, a time to be publicly struck down for a worthy cause, but before then there is always a period where allowing a movement to be silently decimated by insisting on blind obedience to a principle (in this case, openness) is a certain path to failure.

Yes, our heroes, protectors of liberty and tolerance, honored for their integrity, have hidden, deceived, and lied in the service of their causes. Lied to the oppressors to protect, if not themselves, then co-conspirators or family members. Lied to co-conspirators, friends, and family members for their own protection. We are uncomfortable with the concept because we really want truth to be absolute. We want a standard for honesty that does not require that we struggle with relative issues of “right” and “good.” We wish to believe that, if we simply tell the full and honest truth at all times, things will always work out. History informs us otherwise: even Mohandas Ghandi planned the non-violent Indian independence movement in some secrecy; ask any victim of child abuse about the advisability of total honesty under intolerant circumstances.

Think of the struggles that our heroes — women and men of integrity — have endured, to choose to behave ignobly for a noble cause. These struggles may never be honored, but they have purchased our freedoms as surely as the other sacrifices for which they are honored.

RonRisley – 24 Feb 2005