The Politics of Intolerance

Businessman Standing on Steps Outside Talking Through a Megaphone, Large Group of Business People Listening and Applauding
Businessman Standing on Steps Outside Talking Through a Megaphone, Large Group of Business People Listening and Applauding

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the most intolerant of them all?

Me, says Donald Trump -- I will build a wall to keep Mexican bandits and rapists away from our homeland.

Me, says Scott Walker -- I will see your wall in Mexico and raise you one in Canada.

Me, says Jeb Bush -- I have no beef with the Hispanics, just Asian women throwing down their anchor babies.

Me, says Chris Christie -- I will track legal immigrants like FedEx packages and ship them out when their time expires.

Me, says Ted Cruz -- I proclaim weakness is not nearly as good as strength. The unwillingness to fight Obamacare is akin to appeasing Hitler.

Me, says Ben Carson -- I lecture rape victims that they should go immediately to the ER, so they don't have to have abortions, which is morally repugnant.

Me, says Mike Huckabee -- I remind everyone that the unborn need to be protected by those, like me, who speak for God. We must change the U.S. Constitution to reflect the purity of Christian values.

And so it goes, an oft-told tale of political leaders competing with each other to win the vote of the angry and intolerant. We are comforted by knowing there is an us -- normal, upstanding, silent, law abiding, respectful, hardworking, patriotic -- and them -- abnormal, lawless, noisy, immoral, lazy, sexually promiscuous, dependent, and dangerous. All of us, to some degree, wish to maintain our existing worldview and scapegoat those we don't understand or agree with. Political leaders preaching intolerance express the collective's shadow by projecting their own grandiosity, moral superiority, paranoia, and retaliatory policies toward those deemed other or not normal.

There is something insidious about normal. From its Latin roots, normal was identified with conformity, specifically to a pre-existing measurement device, such as a carpenter's square. Normal has a way of making that which is outside the measure of one's worldview evil, and allowing the accuser to feel righteous in the process.

Intolerance also has a biological basis. It's as if the amygdala, the almond-shaped mass of nuclei in our brain that is linked with emotions and aggression, is put on heightened alert and then soothed by identifying a target for its unease. Authoritarian leaders have long understood the magnetism of projecting an enemy that they alone can defeat. At an emotional level, intolerance can be a source of immediate gratification, securing one's identity and providing certainty of one's enemy. Ask any Red Sox fan about the Yankees or vice versa; they will explain it to you.

The social impact of intolerance, however, is anything but gratifying. When intolerance reaches its social crescendo, no one is safe, not even those who imagine themselves as part of the in-group. In the wake of intolerance comes paranoia, narcissism, rage, and fear, a toxic brew of suffering that leaves nothing of the human spirit intact.

Intolerance can spread quickly, but it should not be mistaken for the attitude of the whole. It may take only a single charismatic individual to embolden a subgroup with pent-up feelings of intolerance, but that subgroup still is only a minority of the total population. To offer a dramatic example, the original base of elective support for the Nazi party in 1930 was only 18.3%, growing to 37.4% by 1932. Even after the banning of the Communist party, the Nazi party could not gather a majority of the general electoral vote in 1933. What they could not do with popular sentiment, however, was accomplished with violence and intimidation. We may all have some predisposition for intolerance, but that should not be mistaken for our general attitude toward others or the general attitude of our fellow citizens.

Intolerance masks fear and insecurity. "These guys," a former Romney advisor declares about some of the governors now running for the presidency, "were big deals in their states, but you get them onto the national stage and it's a different story. It's like they were in middle school, and now they're freshmen in high school and they're getting their faces slammed in the toilets."

What lurks in the shadow of grandiosity and bullying others is the primal fear of being revealed as an outcast oneself, bullied and in danger of having one's insecurities revealed. This may be a plausible explanation for why some of our most vocal bullies continually see themselves as victims themselves, pointing to the unfairness of the criticism they receive.

Living in a pluralistic society presents a conundrum. We love the results of our diversity, manifesting in innovation and prosperity, but are confused by its demands for holding our own worldview lightly. Intolerance, in part, is a reductive response to complexity, an erroneous attempt to feel safe and deny the reality of other perspectives.

No group is without its self-appointed guardians of what is right and proper. Can we live with them without driving ourselves crazy? Can we resist the temptation to mirror their behavior with our own intolerance? Most critically, can we band together with others who are drawn to compassionate solutions and resist the rhetoric and policies that do harm?

Of course, intolerance never announces itself directly. More often it arrives circuitously, in the name of protecting a homeland in which a national identity is fantasized as pure and peaceful. Our current obsession with immigration is a case in point, and the contradictions and complexities are plentiful. "My great-grandfather did not travel across four thousand miles of the Atlantic Ocean," stated the comedian Stephen Colbert in a congressional hearing, "to see this nation overrun by immigrants. He did it because he killed a man back in Ireland. That's the rumor."

Humor has a way of puncturing our inflated notions and pointing to the contradictions of our authoritarian zeal. Let's try to keep our wits about us as we are tested by the waters of intolerance now flowing freely. We can, and we must, keep our hearts open and our community bonds strong.