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Tolerance is a Long War

May 29, 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates has one of the best descriptions I have heard justifying the idea of tolerance, not simply as a moral imperative but as a strategic one. Coates understands that tolerance is about taking the risk to operate outside of your comfort zone for the purpose of creating a larger and clearer understanding of the world and the “others” who inhabit it. This effort may well be an exercise in futility; we are never, after all, going to understand everything about the world. But it is in the effort that we create connections and build up a reservoir of good will among disparate groups. And that is what creates, in the political world at least, a coalition. And coalitions win elections and change the culture. An excerpt:

It’s about practicing Tolerance. It’s about attempting to understand people who are radically different from you, and saying to them you want their voice in the process. Tolerance isn’t just a value you hold, so much as it’s something you do repeatedly. It’s uncomfortable. You fuck up. You go to parties where they play music that you don’t know how to dance to. You go to restaurants where the food is difference. You go to neighborhoods, where no one speaks English. The whole time people on the outside are laughing at you. The people you’re trying to understand get pissed at you, and call you racist, homophobe, bigot, sexist etc.

But they ultimately respect you for trying. And you get better. You pick up bits of a second language. You learn to like the food, to enjoy the music. And then one day you look up, and lo and behold, it seems like the whole world is dancing to that same music, eating that same food.


The conservative movement has never gotten “tolerance.” They think tolerance is something you do as a favor for someone else, that it’s a slogan, that it involves appointing a showman who employs ancient slang. They don’t understand. Tolerance is about warfare–it makes your army bigger than the other guy’s army. It gives you access to weaponry that your enemies have seemingly never heard of (like, the internet).

Liberal Tolerance is the long war, it’s the long game. It’s Barack Obama, at his core. Liberal tolerance–not Jesse Helms–argued for interracial unions. Liberal tolerance is what allowed Obama to neutralize Rev. Wright, and make his race speech. Liberal tolerance is what allowed him to go to Notre Dame and talk with empathy about abortion. Liberal tolerance bets on the future. It presages that world (the world of today) that the GOP has spent very little time preparing for.

One Comment leave one →
  1. john permalink
    May 29, 2009 3:59 pm

    So Coates’s solution to bigotry is a couple 2 Pac CDs and some Tabbouleh?

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