Our country is deeply divided. This, of course, is no secret. There are competing versions over how we need to proceed in terms of race, economics, moral issues and more.
Underlying many of these issues is a competing view of tolerance. As my father and I point out in our book The Beauty of Intolerance, tolerance no longer means what it used to mean. Classically, tolerance has meant recognizing and respecting others when you don’t share their beliefs, values, or practices. By this definition, tolerance assumes disagreement. Otherwise, what is there to tolerate? But according to a new view, tolerance means recognizing and respecting all views as being equal. And by this view, if you think your view is superior, then you’re a hateful, intolerant bigot.
Two Competing Views of Tolerance
These two competing views of tolerance were on clear display this week. In response to the election of Donald Trump, designer Sophie Theallet called for the fashion industry to boycott Melania Trump. In defense of her views, Sophie posted a letter on Twitter that says her brand “stands against all discrimination and prejudice.” And then she says, “As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady.” And she called on the fashion industry to follow her lead.
The irony and contradiction is evident. If she really stands against “discrimination and prejudice,” then why prejudge and discriminate against Melania? If she really values “respect for all lifestyles,” then why not respect the future First Lady, especially since her husband received support from roughly half the country? Do their values matter? In reality, Theallet embraces a pseudo view of tolerance that claims to accept all lifestyles, but in practice, only accepts those who agree with her.
She certainly has the right to hold, defend, and proclaim this view. Even though I think she’s wrong, I fully support her right to run her business this way and to make her views public. People should have the right to run their businesses based upon their deepest moral convictions. But I do think she should stop pretending to value “diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles.” Clearly she doesn’t.
How Mike Pence Stole the Show
If you want to see real value for diversity, and a genuine model of tolerance, you will have to look to another story that has been trending this week: the Hamilton/Pence controversy.
Vice-President Elect Mike Pence took his family to see the play Hamilton. When he arrived many people booed him. How did he respond? “I nudged my kids and reminded them, that’s what freedom sounds like…I wasn’t offended by what was said,” said Pence in an interview on Fox News Sunday.
In other words, rather than getting defensive, angry or resorting to name-calling, Pence chose to find the good in people booing him, and he took the opportunity to teach his kids a valuable lesson: America is a great nation that allows people to disagree fervently. In fact, the value of freedom is greater than our own discomfort. By defending the right of people to boo him, Pence showed that he values freedom more deeply than his own feelings.
Part of what has made America great is that we are a nation of people with diverse views on a plethora of issues. Even though we may think others are deeply mistaken, we value the freedom of disagreement.
After the show, members of the cast personally addressed Pence and offered a criticism of his administration. On stage with his fellow actors, Brandon Victor Dixon read a statement directed at Pence:
“We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us.”
Again, how did Pence respond? Although his security detail rushed him out, Pence made sure to stop and hear the full statement. He valued their opinion and their right to hold it. And he had no ill words the next day. In fact, Pence praised the actors and mentioned how much he enjoyed the show. And he reiterated his commitment to work for all Americans. As a result, Dixon called his response “encouraging.”
Our country will be deeply divided for some time. How do we move forward as a nation? Pence gave us many lessons, but one stands out as critical for our nation at this point: choose to be gracious and kind towards others and genuinely listen to their concerns. Pence could have been critical, harsh, or defensive. But he took the high road. He chose to be civil and kind towards those who see the world differently. And it was noticed. Although it was small, he advanced the ball on bringing back civil discourse. Let’s hope this is a sign of things to come from people on all sides of the political spectrum.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.