Redefining Tolerance: The Case of Chick-fil-A

There has been a lot of clucking surrounding the comments Chick-fil-A COO Dan Cathy made on my radio show on June 16.

While discussing fatherhood with me, Dan Cathy expressed the following thoughts that have contributed to the media firestorm:

"I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,'" Cathy said. "And I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about."

In recent days activist bloggers, opportunistic politicians and the media have brought the culture war over re-defining marriage to a boil, inciting boycotts, protests and rallies of support.

I have no desire to join the debate over the definition of marriage. However, I ask questions for a living and I am quite comfortable asking the necessary questions to provoke a public conversation about civility in our public discourse.

I have observed and been engaged in the reaction on both sides of this story. I have come to the troubling conclusion that the uproar is not fueled by the debate on same sex marriage, rather the primary issue has become the tension between conviction and tolerance.

Lost in the media sound bytes and bumper sticker accusations is the question we should all be asking. Has tolerance been re-defined? It seems to me that there is a double standard on tolerance.

In a war of words, the words we use should matter. A search in the dictionary for tolerance is helpful. Tolerance is defined as a "fair, objective and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, differ from one's own."

Increasingly, we see a well-oiled publicity machine that is redefining tolerance as, "either you agree with me or you need to button your lips." Those who throw the labels of intolerance and bigotry at those who share an opposing opinion are ironically modeling a glaring lack of tolerance.

Who among us would disagree that what we believe and how we see the world are indeed very personal? Each of us get to choose what we believe. Does our opinion hold greater value than those we disagree with?

How then should we as members of a civilized society react when someone says something we passionately disagree with or find personally offensive?

It is natural to allow our emotions to get the best of us and hurl nasty names and accusatory monologues in the media or from behind our computer monitors. It is easy to vilify another on Twitter and post snarky comments on blogs and Facebook. These actions are lazy and irresponsible. We can do better.

There is a great divide between strong convictions and hateful actions. A civil society can and must discern between the two.

I believe that true tolerance can only exist in the tension of civil disagreement and dialogue. Stand for what you believe in and engage in the public discourse but do so with civility and true tolerance for those who see the world differently.

What would happen if we engaged in conversations with those we passionately disagree with?

It is time for those engaged in contentious debate to put the pitchforks down, pick up some coffee cups and have some messy conversations. Messy conversations lead to healthy conversations. Healthy conversations lead to understanding. Understanding those whom we disagree with leads to pure tolerance.

Times have certainly changed yet America's melting pot DNA has not. Our future as a great society depends largely on our ability to live alongside those who believe and act differently than us. The world will continue to change but Americans right to express their beliefs will not.

I am highly skeptical that either side in the marriage debate, or any other social or political debate for that matter, will change the others position. However, I am quite certain that it is difficult to be angry with or accuse one of bigotry while conversing over coffee.

To those who would join me in the messy middle, I take my coffee with cream and sugar.