For two decades, America’s schools and colleges have made a signal virtue of “tolerance” and the “celebration” of diversity. When skeptics have voiced concerns that these bumper-sticker sentiments pose a threat to free speech and intellectual freedom, or threaten to substitute the habits of therapy for those of disciplined inquiry, they have been dismissed as retrograde curmudgeons.
Tolerance is a cardinal virtue when it entails parties disagreeing over questions of beliefs, values, and culture, but respecting the rights of their opponents to live and politic within the confines of the American constitutional order. However, in today’s colleges and universities, tolerance has too often evolved into a watery, uncritical acceptance of illiberal behavior.
A telling little farce recently played out at the University of Maryland, illustrating just how troubling “tolerance” can become.
As the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher reported, University of Maryland student Mia Lazarus recently went to buy some chips and juice at the Maryland Food Collective. The clerk at this grocery and sandwich shop in the student union read her t-shirt’s “Baltimore Zionist District” and “I Stand for Israel” slogans and then declared, “Your shirt offends me. I won’t ring you up.”
Another coop cashier eventually sold Lazarus her chips and juice. But more instructive than Lazarus’s ability to finally buy her groceries has been the aftermath. After an hours-long, “teary” meeting between Lazarus, her friends, and the collective, the coop agreed that it would serve any customer who wasn’t physically or verbally abusive, but that workers offended by a customer’s politics could arrange for another clerk to serve a patron.
The president of the university’s Pro-Israel Terrapin Alliance opined, “The arrangement we worked out, while not ideal, is a reasonable accommodation. I would not want to force anyone to act against their own political beliefs.”
Coop employees told the Post’s Fisher that “no one should have to have contact with people whose views they find hurtful.”
Meanwhile, Lazarus clearly saw it as her responsibility to make amends. When Lazarus and her friends from Maryland’s Jewish community met with the collective, they brought a chocolate cake they had baked as a peace offering.
In a studiously nonconfrontational letter to the cashier who turned her away, Lazarus wrote, “I got the impression that your action at the register was a very ‘in the moment,’ emotional reaction. Nonetheless, the way you expressed your feelings was not the most constructive.” In case that proved too sharply worded, she then volunteered at the coop herself.
Ironically, the University of Maryland’s “human rights code” prohibits discrimination on the basis of political beliefs, along with sex, race, and so on. The university’s student union director, Gretchen Metzelaars, was, however, unable to convince members of the coop that they had discriminated.
After agreeing to serve students like Lazarus in the future (by allowing clerks to discreetly slip away from customers they disapprove of), the coop told Metzelaars, “Okay, but if someone came in wearing a swastika, we wouldn’t serve them.”
Did the experience shake Lazarus’s simple faith in the power of tolerance? Turns out she’s a big fan of the coop’s solution.
Asked whether allowing clerks to selectively refuse to serve customers was acceptable, or whether it rested on the same troubling rationale that once supported “separate but equal,” Lazarus rejected the analogy. “Separate but equal wasn’t equal,” she told him. “In this case, I’m getting the same service, but it’s just from a different cashier.”
Exactly how “tolerance” devolved into coddling those who choose to take offense for the slightest of reasons is a question for another day (although decades of experience demonstrates that on-campus tolerance is more frequently understood as the right of “victims” to air grievances than of heterogeneous speakers to be heard). Another question is how and why we’ve allowed identity politics to constrict public spaces.
But the pressing problem with the way “tolerance” as touted by too many educators is that it rewards zealotry; while the zealots are understood to be beyond its soggy grasp, the rational and pragmatic are expected to do what is necessary to keep the peace.
The champions of “tolerance” have pitched it as a costless and all-embracing virtue, all the while dismissing or sidestepping concerns that it might dim critical faculties or undermine commitment to core American values. Indeed, the goings-on at the Maryland Food Collective suggest just how readily this doctrine can become tantamount to unilateral intellectual and moral disarmament.
Is this the way to equip the new generation for the rigors of the 21st century? When Islamofascists next demand that newspapers refuse to run a cartoon or an essay, or cite “provocative” American books or music as a justification for murder, can we have any confidence that we have prepared the painfully pleasant Mia Lazaruses of this world to stare them down? For those who have long suggested that “tolerance” should be the lodestar in our educational compass, this is a question well worth pondering.
– Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.