Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Universal Tolerance

I am going through Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists. I have already covered his 6 principles for such a strategy. Now, I am ready to start looking at the 10 policy goals that this strategy is meant to achieve.

He expressed the first of these policy goals as follows:

Our military shall serve and include all Americans, religious and non-religious, with no hint of bias and with no hint of fundamentalist extremism coloring our military decisions at home or abroad.

Faircloth illustrated his point with the story of Stephen Hill, ". . . a gay serviceman who was booed at that Republican Tea-Party Debate"

I want to start by saying that there is nothing about being a serviceman that gives one an automatic immunity from criticism for one's words and behavior. Whether or not it was appropriate to boo this person has nothing at all to do with the fact that he was a serviceman.

Let us assume that somebody created a video to ask a question at a Republican debate in which he claimed to now have four under-age brides, or he claimed to be the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

We would have booed.

Well, I would have.

It would not have been, in any sense of the word, an "unpatriotic" act to have done so. In fact, I would consider booing such a person to be the more patriotic act. It communicates the view that American service personnel should meet a higher moral standard than this person represents. It says, "America is - or strives to be - or should strive to be - better than this."

It is not at all difficult to imagine that those who booed Stephen Hill were expressing just such an attitude.

Of course, an instant response likely to pop into the minds of most of my readers is, "How dare they say that Stephen Hill or atheists do not meet that standard?"

Indeed. How dare they? Doing so is objectionable.

The point of this post is to point out that this is where the discussion starts. This is the claim to be made.

A military that "serves and includes all Americans" does not even make sense. We would have to include the American who takes four underage brides, or who asserts freely his contempt for all "niggers". We would have to include the religious fundamentalist who holds that America should engage in a new crusade to drive the infidels out of the Holy Lands, and one that holds that all apostates are to be "fragged" at the first opportunity. It would include the truly militant atheist who holds that we should clean religion out of the meme pool by euthanizing anybody who shows even the slightest symptoms of being infected with this virus.

No sane person actually wants a military that serves and includes these kinds of people. Nobody is actually advocating that the military serve and include "all Americans".

I am confident (though I could be wrong) that not even Sean Faircloth would literally advocate such a policy.

Instead, each of us has a mental list of who we would include and who we would exclude - who we would boo and who we would cheer. None of us cheers everybody and boos nobody.

We understand that, whenever somebody speaks about tolerating everybody, they are really talking about tolerating the people on "our list" while excluding the people not on "our list". That is why we applaud - we are cheering "our list" of people to include or exclude.

The further away the speaker gets from mentioning any specifics as to who he would include or exclude, up to the point where he destroys the assumption that he is not literally talking about including everybody, the more freedom the listener has to insert his or her own list into the speech. Thus, the greater the political appeal that such a claim can have.

Even the religious fundamentalist can cheer such a statement. He will likely interpret the world as one in which his brand of religious fundamentalism us not being tolerated or included. People keep forcing him to treat atheist and gay service personnel with dignity and respect. What about treating the person whose religion teaches contempt for gays and atheists with dignity and respect? Where is your love of tolerance then?

So, Sean Faircloth's first policy objective meets our criterion of political utility. It is vague nearly to the point if meaninglessness, allowing each person to fill in the gaps with their own prejudices, allowing everybody to cheer, even though they have different and conflicting ideas of what they are cheering.

In truth, Faircloth's use of the principle is not entirely empty. While he speaks about including "all Americans", the context makes it clear that he is advocating that gays and atheists be put on the "approved" list. This is not empty, and some people might object.

In a different context, somebody advancing nearly the same claim could understood as including those who hold that gays are not fit to serve and atheists fit only to take orders and never to give orders are on "our list". He would be seen as advocating tolerance for such people.

Faircloth offers no real defense of his proposal. Technically, his argument is that everybody should be included, gays and atheists are a part of "everybody". Therefore, gays and atheists should be included. However, everybody knows - including Sean Faircloth, I wager - that nobody accepts the first premise as literally true. Therefore, Faircloth is not actually offering a defense of his claim that gays and atheists be put in the "included" group.

Tomorrow, I am going to look at the issue from a different angle. This angle will reject the idea of including "all Americans", and take seriously the idea that we need a list of who to include and who to exclude - who we may cheer, and who we may boo. It will put gays and atheists on the "accepted" list. However, it will ground this on the false assumption that we are going to include "all Americans". It will take seriously the fact that a list is to be made, and some people are not going to make that list.

Unfortunately, this means that the principle will be more substantive, which means it will also be less useful in a political strategy.

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