June 22, 2008
My ongoing inability to explain the difference between zero intolerance and zero tolerance
There's an extended and intriguing discussion by several bloggers at Volokh (including Eugene Volokh) about a recent study showing that 53% of academics have a negative view of evangelical Christians. Ilya Somin thinks that the negative view is grounded in opposition to the evangelicals' political conservatism, while others see personal prejudice, or even an anti-Christian (or anti-religious) animus.
I don't know how helpful it will be, but I thought I would weigh in based on my own life experience in academia and with Evangelical Christians.
I'm not trying to be profound or settle anything, but I want to look at what I think may be at least a partial force behind this clearly identified anti-Evangelical bigotry in academia.
Yes, bigotry. Let me get that out of the way. We are all bigoted to one degree or another, yet none of us wants to admit it, because "bigot" is such a loaded word.
a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.I concluded that opposing same sex marriage is not bigotry unless it is grounded in hatred or intolerance of homosexuals.
But even that begs discussion of what may be an unacknowledged elephant in the room: the seemingly intractable conflict between Christian Evangelicals and gay activists. Each side sees the other as bigoted, and each side is fueled by this mutual bigotry from the other side. To anti-gay fundamentalists, bigotry or prejudice against homosexuality reflects God's ultimate truth, but does that mean it is not bigotry? I realize that many of those who condemn homosexuality claim they love homosexuals but "hate the sin" of homosexuality, but this distinction is lost on homosexuals, who see condemnation of their form of love as the most profound form of bigotry imaginable, and who then reflexively invoke the principle of "the best defense is a good offense" and endorse unhinged bigotry against those they see as bigoted.
I've looked at this phenomenon in a number of posts, and it isn't easy to settle. Bigotry never is; I've also looked at bigotry against pit bulls,
Whether it is fair to say that academics do not generally know evangelical Christians, I'm not sure. They would have most likely seen the television variety, and I suspect that many would be able to quote or paraphrase Jerry Falwell on the cause of 9/11 being gays and abortionists. (But was that religion? Or was it political conservatism? Does it matter?)
Not that it's fair to lump all evangelicals in with guys like Falwell. Or Robert Knight (who blamed Howard Stern and homosexuality for abu Ghraib.) Or Dinesh D'Souza. Or my emailer Matt Barber. But let's suppose you disagree with people like that the way you might disagree with, say Cindy Sheehan. Is that bigotry? If so, then where is the line to be drawn between disagreement and bigotry?
Is there a different definition of bigotry where it comes to political as opposed to religious disagreements?
Should there be?
If I disagree with Falwell, Knight, D'Souza, and Barber, does it matter whether I am I having a political disagreement, or a religious disagreement?
Let me go back to my early college experiences with evangelicals. (I'd rather not, but I think I should, because it may shed light on what drives academic bigotry.)
Back when I was a kid, the word "Christian" was generic, and did not contain negative connotation it has picked up in the past couple of decades. There were all sorts of Christians, just as there were atheists, but it hadn't yet occurred to the proselytizing atheists to use the term "Christian" to link "regular" Christians with the in-your-face, proselytizing variety. The latter group seemed to spring into life in the late 60s and early 70s, almost with a vengeance. There was a vocal group at UC Berkeley called "Campus Crusade for Christ" along with a plethora of confrontational street preachers, known in those days as "Jesus freaks." They would heckle people, and people would heckle them. After all, they were standing there in the middle of the most radical place in the United States preaching fire and brimstone. Yet there was something cute and innocent about it, and most people went about their business. Still....
Whether you believe in God or not, there is something annoying about having a stranger come up to you and attempt to convert you to a religious viewpoint you do not share. Many but not all people who experience this could be expected to develop a negative view of the proselytizers. Others might laugh them off. I used to ridicule them, because I thought they were ridiculous. I had friends, though, who considered them extremely dangerous, and even regarded them as "the enemy." This was especially true of those who had grown up in evangelical families; one friend hated "the fundies" with a passion because his fundamentalist Texas parents tried to beat the demonic sissiness out of him when he was an adolescent, and he made it his personal mission in life to confront and hurl the worst possible insults at the street preachers.
Even in those days, I liked to see myself as taking a broader view of things, and I actually developed a friendship with the local leader of the "Jesus freaks" -- a man named "Holy Hubert Lindsey." [Quite a fascinating character; he's probably deceased but he seems to be enjoying a new life on the Internet. Bio with photo here.] On his way to the campus, he would sometimes stop by my house and we'd chat in the yard about stuff like the weather and cars, and while he'd usually lay off on the personal stuff, one time he did take me aside and whisper in my ear that if I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior, that he would accept.... Eh, never mind what he'd "accept." How would anyone know? (Even Hubert, bless his heart. It's been many years.)
The reason for recalling this is that I suspect antipathy towards evangelicals might be rooted in something more than their tendency towards political conservatism. Unlike non-evangelical Christians, unlike Jews, Mormons, Hindus, or Buddhists, evangelical Christians are sometimes seen as being unable to leave people alone. Whether this is true about all evangelicals, the fact is that many people do not like the feeling that they're being preached at. I don't especially like being preached at either, unless I put myself in the position of "preachee" by going to church. But suppose someone feels a compulsion to preach at me. Is my not liking it bigotry? If I take a dim view of gratuitous preaching, am I bigoted against those who preach gratuitously? I like to think that I apply the same standard to, say, gratuitous preaching against sexual sins that I'd apply to gratuitous preaching against Global Warming sins and I tend to regard both with derision. But if that is bigoted, am I not just as much an anti-environmentalist bigot as anti-sex-warrior bigot?
Saying that I "try to be fair" is not enough, and does not settle this. Nor does pleading guilty to my own bigotry while calling nearly everyone a bigot in the general sense.
Clearly, there's a right to disagree, and that carries with it a right to be intolerant of opinions, persons, and conduct we don't like, and to say so. But if intolerance is bigotry, what are the implications?
Does that mean we have to tolerate everything?
What a hellishly bigoted world that would be!
posted by Eric on 06.22.08 at 10:41 AM
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