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The Problem with Tolerance

 

I suppose it falls under the general category of promoting tolerance that a Rutgers sophomore, Dharun Ravi, was convicted of a hate crime for recording a gay sexual encounter between his roommate, Tyler Clementi, and an older man with a hidden webcam in a dormitory room. Embarrassed by the exposure, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington bridge.

Clementi’s suicide is unfortunate but Ravi was no murderer. The definition of criminal activity has been blown out of proportion by demographic politics. No longer is a palpable injury required for conviction of a crime; now a person can be prosecuted for having the wrong state of mind. I mean “wrong” in a political sense here. It means being the wrong type of character, fitting the stereotype of someone who perpetrates violence and hate against one’s demographic opposite.

Take a short quiz:

1. Who is the victim, black or white?
2. Who is the victim, woman or man?
3. Who is the victim, gay person or straight?

If you answered all three questions correctly by picking the first option, it shows that you are a genuine American. No one living in the United States during the past twenty or thirty years could have failed to pick up on the idea that it is white people who consistently abuse blacks, men who consistently abuse women, straight people who consistently abuse gays. While human behavior does not always fit that pattern, the exceptions are ignored. The press is simply not interested in them.

But we are talking about tolerance. I am a white male who feels generally uncomfortable about two other males having sex with each other. Society allows me to have that opinion so long as I keep quiet. I am, in fact, personally quite tolerant of what other people do sexually. If they are consenting adults who do not involve me, I feel their type of sexual activity is none of my business.

It becomes more complicated when someone who shares my opinion acts upon it from a position of power. Maybe a business manager will not hire known gays or a landlord refuses to rent to them because of personal attitudes. Then intolerance must be actively thwarted by the government.

Tolerance is then no longer a matter of personal choice; it becomes a government mandate. Someone - the government - is forcing someone else - me - to be tolerant under penalty of law. Government is not tolerating what it considers to be intolerant behavior or thought. That is a phony idea. Tolerance is not the coercive invasion of someone else’s identity.

If this is not paradox enough, the law and public opinion dogmatically assign the intolerant role to a particular demographic type - the white, male, or straight person. In other words, the society’s power structure discriminates while professing to be fighting discrimination. Paradoxes abound.

The rationale in all three cases is that minority groups are vulnerable to majority abuse. Intuitively, we fear that members of a majority group will oppress minorities or, at least, if they are the victim, they will be able to find plentiful allies to protect them in case of danger. Our dominant politics does not countenance the idea of the tyranny of minorities. Yet, minority groups, by their very fear and paranoia, have effectively banded together in coherent groups to exercise disproportionate, even iron-clad, influence upon public policy.

I have no problem with minorities banding together to fight crimes against themselves. What, however, is a crime? It used to be an act of violence. If someone physically injures someone else or injures the other in a substantial way, that is a crime. “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words will never hurt you” - that was the old, common-sense approach to justice. Thoughts are not criminal.

Under the new regime, however, one must be proactive about possible crimes. If someone is thinking a thought that can lead to a crime, we must nip it in the bud before the dangerous thought comes to fruition. Why not consider the thought already a crime? Hateful thoughts sometimes lead to bad behavior. To express or exhibit hate is therefore potentially criminal. Congress has the power to make this attitude a crime prosecutable by the state.

Dharun Ravi was convicted of a hate crime. The punishment is up to ten years in prison and possible deportation to India. Ravi did not assault his victim or cause a physical injury. He embarrassed his victim by broadcasting a sexual encounter recorded by a web cam. Yes, this was an invasion of Clementi’s privacy. It was certainly an unkind act. However, there are civil laws to deal with such deeds. It was Clementi, not Ravi, who brought real injury upon himself by jumping off the bridge.

My general attitude about such things is that life sometimes or often brings unpleasant experiences. Being bullied is part of the process of growing up. The strong pick on the weak. Confident persons pick on those who betray vulnerability. Gay teenagers in predominantly straight company have more than their share of such problems. But is the solution to bullying by a 100-pound boy to bring in the 800-pound bully (which is the law) to adjust the power relationships? It seems to me this is unhelpful, even wrong. Changing power relationships between persons or groups is not a legitimate function of government.

I remember when I was a boy, we used to throw stones at each other in the alley. This was rough play but no one was hurt. I remember once enlisting the help of a grown man to throw stones at our adversaries who was foolish enough to oblige. The other side was routed. At the time, this event was quite exciting. In retrospect, it seems not to have been such a good idea. I now believe that adults should not take part in the more competitive aspects of children’s play.

Today, we have state legislators who pass “anti-bullying” legislation that criminalizes certain behavior existing among children. In effect, it mandates that the police will intervene in power struggles taking place at an early age. The cure is, in my estimation, worse than the disease. The government should leave children alone to be children. We do not need grown-up “bullies”, armed law-enforcement officers, in the school yard.

Other legislators enact and toughen “domestic abuse” laws that intervene in power struggles between family members, especially those involving husband and wife. In this case, women are considered to be the victimized minority who need to be protected by the government. The law maintains that women are inherently so weak-minded, vulnerable, or susceptible to pressure that they will not be allowed to drop the charges against a male partner having once made an accusation. It is claimed that domestic abuse is an offense against the state.

As a point of disclosure, I am myself the defendant in a trial next week involving false charges of assault brought against me by my wife with assistance from her divorce attorney. Having pled guilty once before to a similar charge, I am facing up to a year in prison if a jury finds me guilty in the recent incident. (Note: Since writing this, the city attorney has decided to dismiss the charges against me.)

Because I did not actually assault my wife, I am also being prosecuted on the charge of inflicting fear. Yes, my wife sounded afraid when she interrupted a 911 call that I had placed and spoke with the operator. However, the law states that I must intentionally have induced fear of imminent physical harm to commit a crime of domestic abuse.

Again, criminal law seems to be moving away from punishing actual physical harm to punishing a person’s state of mind. I can be found guilty if I exhibit a particular state of mind - intending to cause fear in my wife - or, in practice, even if the alleged victim exhibits a state of mind - actually being afraid. This kind of subjective, politicized justice may eventually bring the whole house down - either that or we will become inured to living in a police state.

In conclusion, this so-called “tolerance” has gone too far in my opinion. After the Ravi conviction, some legal scholars were speculating that parents and other adults now have an obligation to teach children not to hate gays. They had an obligation to tell them to think in a certain way. This is demographic politics masquerading as tolerance. It is wrong both because of the one-sided characterization of victims and oppressors and, more importantly, its invasion of the sacred sanctuary of each human being, which is the person’s own heart and mind.

Government ought not be allowed to enter into the place of individual conscience. If need be, we need another article in the Bill of Rights to state unequivocally that no government entity - federal, state, or local - has the authority to pass that kind of law. Human thought is and ought to remain free of coercion by lawmakers and the police.

 

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