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Somebody posted a racist flier at the Mary Washington University student union last week. University administrators immediately wrung their collective hands, apologizing profusely. A senior speaking in front of a student rally added her two cents’ worth, declaring that “This is a respectable place. As a student, I would like to hold accountable students who practice intolerance. I feel like there’s no room for that in my community.”

In other words, “I won’t tolerate intolerance.” She apparently said this with a straight face.

Nowadays, I find such naïve, albeit misguided, enthusiasm almost endearing. That wasn’t always the case. Back in the day, it drove me crazy when someone I thought should be tolerant behaved intolerantly. Like a particular Israeli government official speaking at the Virginia Governor’s School against the Skokie Klan march years ago. How can the victim of persecution move so quickly into the role of persecutor, I thought?

Pretty easily, I soon learned. More importantly, I also learned that it was wrong for me to refuse this man the right to express his own views, even when they included censoring others’ speech. If our society is to be tolerant, and therefore just, the intolerant among us must be tolerated. If not, we all become intolerant.

Now don’t get me wrong. Tolerance is not the same as acceptance. We shouldn’t keep our minds so open that our brains fall out. Nor should we permit the intolerant to impose their views on others. No more Nazis, right?

But for offensive student fliers and the like, a zero tolerance policy is inappropriate. For who is to say what is offensive tomorrow? You? Me? I hope not.

So for the time being, I’m going to keep on tolerating the intolerant. Even the ones who can’t tolerate me.

BrevityQuest 2007

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