The Ride of Discord

Is Intolerance a Problem or a Virtue?

Child abuse.” When we wrote earlier this week about new data on bariatric surgery in children with severe obesity, that was one visceral response. Ten years ago, Lindsey Murtagh and David Ludwig trotted out the child abuse label with precisely opposite reasoning. They suggested that parents of children with obesity might be guilty of abuse by reason of medical neglect. The sentiments expressed at these two extremes are miles and years apart. But they both strike a chord of intolerance – condemnation of the parent who might fail a child living in a fat body.

In one case, the sin is harshness. Neglect is the sin in the other case. In both cases, though, it brings out strong emotions. It feels good – in fact, virtuous – to condemn someone who is failing a vulnerable child. But we can’t help but wonder if the impulse to condemn is becoming destructive.

Strong Emotions Are Having a Moment

Political sectarianism is on the rise, wrote a collection of distinguished social scientists late last year. Eli Finkel and colleagues summed it up:

“Political sectarianism consists of three core ingredients: othering – the tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself; aversion – the tendency to dislike and distrust opposing partisans; and moralization – the tendency to view opposing partisans as iniquitous. It is the confluence of these ingredients that makes sectarianism so corrosive in the political sphere.”

Sectarianism is also invading everyday life. Political strife at the national level bleeds into strife about masks and vaccines at a local level. Angry parents fight about health requirements for masks and lead schools to close while teachers try to to cope. Feelings are quite tender about a range of issues – voting, guns, abortions, and more.

The othering, aversion, and moralization that Finkel et al describe are quite impossible to miss.

Intolerance Is an Expression of Bias

Is tolerance and accommodation a sign of weakness? Can we oppose bigotry in every form – including anti-fat bias – while still embracing the humanity of people whom we know harbor some of these biases?

We must. Because here lies the uncomfortable truth. Every one of us harbors bias. Whether explicit or implicit, it is all too human. And intolerance is an expression of bias. So the ambition to disagree without being disagreeable is not such a bad one.

Click here for more from Finkel et al and here for perspective on social cohesion in the midst of COVID-19. For a deeper dive on sectarianism, click here.

The Ride of Discord, painting by Henri Rousseau / WikiArt

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October 3, 2021

2 Responses to “Is Intolerance a Problem or a Virtue?”

  1. October 03, 2021 at 10:12 am, David Brown said:

    Proverbs 19:22 “What is desirable in a man is his kindness.” Both fat shaming and vaccine shaming are not acts of kindness and denote a lack of knowledge and understanding.

    Not everybody is an information seeker. That includes politicians and their policy advisors. So mistakes are made and problems persist.

    • October 03, 2021 at 10:20 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, David.