by Brendan Beery
On CNN this morning, Sarah Palin called the GOP “the party of tolerance.”
When I was in private practice, my law partner was an American of Iranian (Persian, as he would put it) descent. His name is Amir and he looks Middle Eastern. He never tried to hide his ethnic heritage the way some people do (like by changing a name from Piyush to Bobby, for example), so he’s been dealing with American buffoonery since he can remember – right up to having a redneck asshole pull alongside him in a pickup truck, point a rifle at him, and tell him to “go back where [he] came from.”
Amir is one funny dude – and charismatic. He more or less owns whatever room he walks into no matter who else is there. People like him and are drawn to him. And since even bigots know magnetism when they see it, they too are drawn to him. That means Amir has heard a lot of this: “Don’t worry. We’re very tolerant.” He has a pat response: “Fuck you.”
You see, Amir is not a big fan of being tolerated. It is true that many well-meaning and good-natured people use the word tolerance to mean something good. In fact, wordnik.com provides, as one of its definitions of tolerate, the following: “To recognize and respect (the rights, beliefs, or practices of others).” Even this benign definition has its drawbacks; we normally recognize and respect from a distance, and note the definition’s characterization of the object of that recognition and respect: others.
But I think the more common understanding of the word tolerate, and the one that grates on Amir, is another one provided by wordnik.com: “To put up with; endure.” Were you to ask me what kinds of things I tolerate in life, I might list pain, sadness, Florida’s heat, my own bad habits, ignorant teabaggers, to name a few. These are not things (or people) I hold in any esteem, and in fact they chap my ass. But I will tolerate them in the sense that I will accommodate their existence in my orbit – since I have to.
Now, were you to ask me what I embrace, I would say my dogs, my friends, my nephews, my family, my students, to name a few. Now we are talking about things (or people, or dogs) that I do hold in high esteem; they give my life value, and I need them if I am to feel whole.
I’ll bet that most people would answer these two questions (what do you tolerate? and what do you embrace?) in about the same way. In answer to the first question, you’d list things that cause you to itch or squirm or recoil, and in answer to the second question, you’d list things that make you smile and laugh and reach out.
Therein lies the problem with telling another human being, based on something that person cannot control – like his ethnicity – that you will “tolerate” him. What the listener hears is, “I will put up with and endure you.” And as used by Sarah Palin – and the Republican Party more broadly – this is surely what tolerance means: don’t worry, we won’t kill you, at least not on purpose.
How could tolerance mean anything else to a person who sees Mexicans, Muslims, and gays as somehow lesser than – as somehow corrupted, dirty, or unable to enrich our community? How could tolerance mean anything else to a person who says, “I hate the sin but love the sinner”? I find what you do and who you are repulsive, but don’t fret: I love you. Bullshit. If you are repulsed by what I do or who I am, then the best I can hope is that you won’t kill me, at least not on purpose.
To the extent that we can credit Sarah Palin with not wanting to kill all of us she deems to be other than “Real Americans,” we can say that she is mostly right: the GOP is the “party of tolerance.” The question will be whether Americans prefer the party of embrace.