Monday, April 16, 2007

In Tolerance

Perhaps it's just me, but for years now I've noticed a worldwide trend of increasing intolerance that I find intolerable.

What is it in human nature that requires so many of us to tell our neighbor how they should live their lives?

At it's mildest this compulsion takes the form of social approbation, Mrs. Grundy frowning, waggling her finger and saying "tsk, tsk." At the extreme this begets violence, where a group is willing to kill individuals who don't behave in the way the group wants them to.

Many religions are that way. In fact, a claim could be made that the primary purpose of any religion is to prescribe and proscribe how adherents should live their lives. It's apparently not a far leap to want to extend these rules to those who didn't volunteer.

Group behaviors aren't all bad. In fact, part of the development of civilization was the idea that a group should establish some behavioral standards for the good of the whole. Prohibitions against killing your neighbor made sense when living in a group, as did prohibitions against stealing, and other common laws.

But any good idea carried to extremes can result in more harm than good. Dictatorships, fascist regimes, theocracies all usually hurt the majority to the advantage of the ruling minority.

So where's the balance?

A modern debate regarding vaccination against disease is a classic balancing act between the good of all and abuse of power. Vaccines work to prevent disease - seems obvious that everyone should get them. And if everyone got them, then the diseases themselves would die out.

But some don't want them - they believe that the vaccines themselves are too risky, or just don't like someone telling them what to do. And a few can get away without getting vaccines, as long as the overwhelming majority around them are getting vaccines, because only then will the public health risk of transmission be low enough for the unvaccinated to not get ill. Every time the percentage of unvaccinated grows to high, you see an outbreak.

Take polio. In areas of extreme intolerance (and ignorance), polio still thrives. Mullahs in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries actually tell their flocks not to get vaccinated (because it is a western plot to sterilize Muslims). And because of these penis noggins, we have to keep vaccinating our children for polio (putting some small portion at risk for vaccine side effects).

So what's the right answer? Should we tolerate assholes, just because we're the tolerant ones? Or should intolerance itself not be tolerated?

How about the notion that we should tolerate any behavior, as long as it doesn't cause harm to others? Fine idea in theory, but who gets to decide? And then wouldn't the decider be accused of intolerance?

It seems that extremism usually has bad results. But extremists usually view themselves as either being the voice of the silent masses (who really want to do what we say but can't for some odd reason), or forcing the silent masses to "do the right thing" (which of course is decided by the extremists).

How to tell which voices are extremist, and which more closely represent the middle? (Or in a plurality of positions, which ones are extreme and which ones aren't).

I don't have the answers. But I'd be interested in hearing some ideas.

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