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When Tolerance Isn’t Tolerant

Politicizing women's sports is not the answer to the real disagreements people have

Recently, Ashlyn Harris, a backup goaltender for the U.S. women’s soccer World Cup champions, blasted star soccer player Jaelene Hinkle, a devout Christian, in a tweet as being “intolerant” and “homophobic.” What did Hinkle do that made Harris so upset?

Actually it’s what she didn’t do that makes this story so ironic.

Hinkle is apparently homophobic because in 2017 she refused to wear the LGBTQ Pride team jersey due to her Christian convictions. Hinkle thought it was wrong to wear the jersey, so she withdrew from the matches in which the national team wore them.

The “intolerance charge” is a powerful weapon in the hands of LGBTQ supporters because most people consider tolerance to be the universal standard by which kindness and respect are measured. Consequently, anyone seen as lacking tolerance for others is perceived as being mean spirited and disrespectful, or the “bad guy.” And no one wants to be the bad guy.

What should we say in response to someone who says that people who share Hinkle’s views are intolerant homophobes?

We have to first get a handle on what people like Harris really mean with the charge of intolerance. For Harris, and others who think like her, tolerance means we must accept and celebrate everyone’s life choices as equal and valid, especially the life choices celebrated by the LGBTQ movement. So anyone who doesn’t accept and celebrate someone’s life choices as equally good, and judges one way of life to be morally superior to another, is labeled as intolerant.

One problem with this way of thinking is that, when followed, it subverts itself. Consider the belief, “We must accept and celebrate everyone’s life choices as equal and valid.” Well, what about Hinkle’s choice to live her life in a way that doesn’t show support for LGBTQ lifestyles? Shouldn’t that life choice be considered equally good and celebrated?

If Harris were to follow her own logic, then she would have to say yes. But, of course, that would undermine her initial criticism of Hinkle.

In order to avoid subverting her initial criticism, Harris must reject Hinkle’s life choice as equally good. But that means Harris has to be intolerant (given her definition of tolerance).

So, Harris really is not as tolerant as she makes herself out to be. She only tolerates life choices that agree with her own, at least when it comes to approval of LGBTQ lifestyles. And since tolerance is the measure for kindness and respect, then it follows she’s just as mean-spirited and disrespectful as she makes Hinkle out to be, and her criticism of Hinkle backfires.

Another problem with Harris’s way of thinking is that it demands we celebrate and accept life choices that we know are not good. For example, if we were to live by this understanding of tolerance, we would have to accept and celebrate the life choices of those who choose to live their lives as serial killers, thieves, or rapists. But that’s absurd! These life choices are not good and thus are not worthy of acceptance or celebration.

Now, someone like Harris might respond, “Of course, we shouldn’t tolerate (accept and celebrate) life choices that involve murder, thievery, and rape. Those clearly aren’t good life choices because they cause harm to people. The life choices associated with the LGBTQ movement don’t harm anyone.”

This brings us to the more fundamental problem with Harris’s approach. It sidesteps the real question: are the life choices associated with the LGBTQ movement morally good?

If the life choices associated with the LGBTQ movement—such as same-sex sexual activity, so-called sex reassignment surgery, dressing and living as a woman when you’re a man, or as a man when you’re a woman—are not good for us insofar as we are human beings, then they would be harmful inasmuch as they would harm our moral character. And if such life choices were morally harmful, then we shouldn’t accept or celebrate them, even if civil authorities might tolerate them lest their legal censure bring about a greater evil.

And the choice to not accept and celebrate such lifestyles wouldn’t be any more mean spirited or disrespectful than it would be to not accept or celebrate life choices that involve murder, thievery, and rape. On the contrary, such a choice would be an expression of love because love is to will the good of another.

So, the real issue is not whether someone is mean-spirited and disrespectful for not accepting and celebrating someone’s life choices. It’s whether those life choices are morally good or bad, and thus worthy of acceptance and celebration or rejection and lamentation.

Moreover, to oppose a life choice by simply throwing around labels that demean a person without giving a reasoned argument as to why such a choice is wrong, which is what Harris did, is to engage in bigotry. There is nothing kind and respectful about being unwilling to give a fair hearing to opposing views and insulting the person rather than reasoned debate.

Finally, Harris’s intolerance charge distorts the true meaning of tolerance. The Cambridge Dictionary defines tolerance as the “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, even if you disagree with or disapprove of them.” Given that this definition allows for disapproval of a behavior or belief, by “accept” it means permit or allow.

So, how can Hinkle be intolerant for disapproving of the life choices celebrated by the LGBTQ movement when disapproving of life choices necessarily belongs to the essence of tolerance? According to this definition of tolerance, Hinkle was being tolerant. As expressed in her interview, she disapproved of what the LGBTQ jerseys stood for but she did so in a way that was kind and respectful, unlike Harris’s approach.

The intolerance charge may have power relative to the standards of what a tweet allows for. But when looked at from the perspective of reason, it turns out to be just that, a tweet. As one author argues, such sound bite philosophies run our premium brains on the cheap and inefficient fuel of superior feeling, but cannot be counted as true philosophy that enhances understanding. Our dignity as rational beings demands more. Let’s do our best to give it.

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