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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Beyond Tolerance

Last Fall’s elections offered no shortage of statements from Sarah Palin that left me standing, jaw agape, and questioning the fundamentals of American democracy. Yet it was one unexpected proclamation from the then candidate that left me mulling my own assumptions about a concept that I had always accepted as an ideal we were striving toward in our diverse nation. In an interview, Palin claimed one of her best friends was a gay woman and that she supported the decisions of Americans when it came to their own personal lives.

Each time I saw the interview it nagged at me; something wasn’t adding up. My gut reaction was to be impressed by Palin’s open-mindedness, yet how could a woman who supported a ban on gay marriage, moved to strip Alaskan gay couples of spousal benefits, and referred to her friends homosexuality as “a choice that isn’t a choice I would have made” still seem to fit the definition of a tolerant person?

In the last few decades, the word tolerance has joined “love”, “hope”, and “peace” in the realm of abstract terms of pleasant comfort which we accept as unconditionally good. Yet when we speak of tolerance, it’s easy to forget just what we are saying. We tolerate that which is different, that which we who are “normal” have declared deviant, that which is not like “us.”

As University of California Berkley political science professor Wendy Brown says, “Dislike, disapproval, and regulation lurk at the heart of tolerance. To tolerate is not to affirm but to conditionally allow what is unwanted or deviant.”

Tolerance is a necessary part of any society; it’s the principal that allows people of differing views and values to live side by side with the mutual understanding that although we may disagree we can all live civilly together. But when it comes to politicians who make choices about the fundamental rights of their constituents, is it enough to simply say a candidate is legitimate because they do not call for the eradication of those who don’t share their values? Are they progressive because they are friendly with someone who they would deny equal rights?

Sarah Palin is far from alone in offering the simple consolation of tolerance while still supporting policies that leave many Americans second-class citizens. National politicians who support gay marriage rights are few and far between, while the vast majority of others, Democrats and Republicans alike, placate those who question their positions with claims of their acceptance of all people just so long as they stay on the margins, don’t ask for equality, and enjoy the privilege of being tolerated.

Even among supporters of the legalization of same sex marriage, the debate goes on using terms that separate them from normal weddings. The term “gay marriage” as opposed to “marriage equality” implies a parallel institution that, while perhaps equal, is somehow different than “normal marriage.”

As Barack Obama delivered his victory speech in Chicago this past November, he described the U.S. as a nation of “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled, and not disabled.” Even as he delivered this message of inclusion, several states, including California, where marriage had once been an equal institution, voted to change their constitutions to ban marriage rights for people of all sexual orientations, making hundreds of thousands of people who briefly enjoyed the same opportunities and rights as every other citizen people who are only fit to be simply tolerated.