Distinguishing between Tolerance and Intolerance Used to Be Easier

John Wilson and April Kelly-Woessner have been having a very thought-provoking exchange on the relative tolerance or intolerance evident in the views of today’s young adults in comparison to earlier generations at that age.

Somewhere in the mix of all of these issues, one probably has to account for the broader cultural influence of a Far Right rhetorical strategy that has become commonplace over the last several decades, but has become much exaggerated since Obama was elected president.

In other posts to this blog, there has been a discussion of what a “balanced” viewpoint means—and, more specifically, a discussion of the media’s conflation of fair coverage of all viewpoints with an almost mathematically equal coverage of all viewpoints. As much as anything else, this practice has made the lunatic fringe seem much closer to the mainstream than it has in most periods in our recent national history.

That rhetorical strategy has spawned an off-shoot by which many on the Far Right seek to define any objection to intolerance as an expression of intolerance.

Thus, those who continue to object to racism in the U.S. are the “real racists” because they are “race-obsessed.”

Likewise, those who object to the Fundamentalist Christian belief that homosexuality is a grievous offense—that it should be regarded as a sin or a manifestation of evil–are preaching a more grievous type of intolerance against devout Christians.

On the other hand, if a Muslim accepts any of the conservative tenets of his or her religion, he or she is categorically an extremist who has no place in America because even in those states in which Muslims represent a minuscule portion of the population, they will somehow impose Sharia law on everyone else.

And those who argue that someone’s right to carry a gun anywhere and everywhere that he or she chooses to do so should not outweigh everyone else’s right to a sense of public safety are unpatriotic devaluers of American Constitutional rights because they dare to deny the incontestable truism that more gun ownership increases public safety, instead of denying their own feeling of deepening uneasiness.

All of these stances represent some pernicious hybrid of ad hominem, straw-man and circular arguments. The core questions that should be at issue are, instead, begged to a dizzying degree.

As a result of the repeated implementation of this strategy, all positions on all issues are reduced to partisan opinions that should be treated equivalently because, even if one view actually has much more merit than another, almost no one in the mainstream media wants to be accused of partisan bias. And that is because they will, in fact, be accused of partisan bias.

We have reached a bizarre state in which comedians are being held to higher standards of correctness than political leaders and political commentators are held to–and in which the Internet, surely the most venomous and noxious medium of human communication ever invented, has become the tool for the public shaming of selectively targeted individuals who have said something stupid or, more often, have simply said something stupidly.

In effect, the FOX News mantra of being “fair and balanced” has led to a media environment—and, by extension, to a broader public arena–in which “objective” reporting has become completely gutted of the judicious respect for the nature and the limits of “facts” and other supporting evidence. And the watchdog role of the media has been reduced to a gimmick—the equivalent of one of those faux taxidermied fish fitted with motion sensors that cause them to turn their heads and say something clever when someone passes by.


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