Some Thoughts on “Rules of Engagement”

I see words like “tolerance,” “open-mindedness” and “respect” bandied about quite a bit by right-leaning Christians, often expressed in the negative (intolerance, close-mindedness and disrespect) with the latter aimed as charges against leftists and atheists. Those words and their adjectival derivatives have frequently been thrown in my teeth, and I imagine that among readers of, and contributors to, this board I’m not alone in that experience. It seems to me that some discussion of these terms is perhaps in order. TOLERANCE In human affairs (as opposed to the way engineers use the word), tolerance is a term that describes legal standing and the limits of governance.

It concerns that which is permitted by law, as its antithesis has to do with what is proscribed.  In the United States, tolerated behaviors are enumerated in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights; the list includes such things as free expression, freedom to assemble peaceably, freedom to worship whatever one wishes in whatever manner one pleases, and the right to move freely about the country and associate with whomever one will (and, yes, the right to bear arms – the most problematic of those Constitutionally-guaranteed rights, and the one most in need of revisiting for the sake of our society’s health).  Those activities are all tolerated by the government: such Constitutional guarantees are a hedge against powerful interests (corporations, religious institutions, moneyed interests) that might seek to curtail such activities.

A cursory glance at history should be enough to make it clear, why such guarantees are precious and worth defending. With this understanding of the term in view, it should be obvious that – allowing for the exceptions of child-rearing and classroom management, in which case intolerance of certain behaviors becomes a matter of parental and social responsibility – an individual cannot, strictly-speaking, be either tolerant or intolerant: tolerance is not mine to extend or withhold.

However loudly or vociferously I object to someone’s views, it’s not my place to say that that person cannot be permitted to hold them. In denouncing such views, I’m therefore by no means being intolerant. I have nothing but contempt for young earth creationism, for instance, but it’s not within my range of prerogatives to outlaw such views; nor, for reasons of self-interest, would I wish them outlawed: the curtailment of one person’s right to express himself as he sees fit is a surefire guarantee that, sooner or later, my own right to do so is going to be trampled. It’s therefore wide of the mark for right-leaning Christians to accuse leftists and atheists as “intolerant:” strictly-speaking, it’s not ours to tolerate in the first place – that’s the prerogative of government.

So even though I find the cockamamie views of “creation scientists” and “flood geologists” to be shit-stupid and abhorrent, I do not, properly speaking, find them “intolerable.” (That doesn’t mean that such views can be tolerated in public-school classrooms, however; this is in line with the government’s prerogative and responsibility to set appropriate limits that protect First Amendment rights – one of which has to do with the establishment of religion.) It’s probably safe to assume, then, that when my somewhat inebriated father bellowed memorably from his seat at the dinner table, “Someone grab a dishrag and wipe that youngun’s ass – you know I can’t tolerate nastiness!”, he’d chosen the wrong verb (“tolerate,” not “grab” or “wipe”). While it’s not strictly possible for an individual to be intolerant, as I have explained above, it certainly isn’t unusual to see certain people advocating intolerance:

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Pastor Worley, unfortunately, is not an isolated instance. It might be interesting to catalog all of the calls for intolerance on YouTube over the course of any twelve-month period (for instance), and find out which quarter they most often emanate from. (Hint: the god of the Bible is notoriously intolerant.) OPEN-MINDEDNESS I see this expression quite a lot, and wonder whether those who use it so cavalierly are sufficiently open-minded to have thought about what it means. Open-mindedness, properly understood, is a virtue that I recommend highly: it is the means by which much of the progress in human affairs has been made possible.

If you accuse me of being narrow- or close-minded, chances are that the charge arises from my refusal to take seriously the views of charlatans and hucksters. Let’s think about this: if a person tells me that the Earth is a flat disc just as the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible teaches, am I being close-minded by refusing to take his claim seriously? Would you take his claim seriously? (I have met such a person, by the way – so, rare as it may be, this is nevertheless a real-world example.) The epitome of open-mindedness can be found in the teachings and example of the Buddha, who counseled his students to pursue all questions assiduously and courageously, accepting the conclusions to which that questioning leads whether or not they make us comfortable (One of the many differences between Buddhism and Christianity – perhaps the most crucial difference – is that unlike Jesus, the Buddha never told us what to think).

But to pursue questions assiduously and courageously is not the same thing as adopting an unthinking posture that entertains all claims as having equal force and likelihood. Evolution by Natural Selection and special creation in six days are not equally valid hypotheses, George W. “Teach the Controversy” Bush notwithstanding. The fact that I reject young earth creationism does not make me close-minded: rather, it is my open-mindedness that led me to reject that absurd notion in the first place, because open-mindedness consists of examining evidence and being willing to accept the conclusions that the evidence points to, even when those conclusions fly in the face of what one has previously believed. (It’s perhaps telling that virtually every one of the positions I now hold at the ripe old age of 64 is diametrically opposed to the particulars of my childhood indoctrination.

If that isn’t evidence of open-mindedness, what would be?) QualiaSoup does a beautiful job of explaining open-mindedness in this video:

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RESPECT Unlike tolerance, respect is a personal attitude – a response to an idea or a person. Since respect vis-à-vis ideas and respect vis-à-vis persons are really two different things, I want to address them separately, in that order.

There are ideas that I respect and ideas for which I have no respect. Among those ideas for which I have no respect are supernatural explanations for natural phenomena and the belief that, because of an inherited sinful nature, we stand in need of redemption by means of human sacrifice – a notion that I find absolutely nausea-inducing. Among the ideas that I respect is the idea enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, that people are free to believe such nonsense if they wish to. In this case, it’s people’s rights I respect, not their ideas. There is a special category of ideas that I want to talk about at slightly greater length. Most of my career as a musician has been spent on the conductor’s podium, and over the years I’ve acquired a thorough knowledge and (I think) deep understanding of the symphonic works of several composers – Arcangelo Corelli, J.S. Bach, Joseph Haydn, Amadeus Mozart, L. van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, Igor Stravinsky Béla Bartók, Anton Webern and Olivier Messiaen foremost among them.


As a musical craftsman charged with the responsibility of directing the musical expression of other artists, my foremost concern has been with fidelity to the musical score. I have come to understand that if such a towering genius as Johannes Brahms placed a particular stylistic or interpretive marking in one of his scores, even if it doesn’t make sense to me immediately, it simply is not my prerogative to ignore it and encourage others to do so. It is instead my obligation to think as deeply as I can about that stylistic or interpretive marking and try to figure out the best possible way to realize it in performance so that it becomes convincing in the context of the whole work.

This is a peculiar, focused kind of respect that one musical artist extends to those far greater than himself, and applies especially to the work one does, the pride one takes in it and the wish always to do it well. But respect is also something that one extends to or withholds from people. It is probably this dimension of respect that has the profoundest implications for the tenor of a society and the quality of one’s life. I wish to be respected – by which I mostly mean, taken seriously – and I assume the same to be true of others. This is why I approach novel social situations – events at which I meet new people – with the assumption that until proven otherwise, people are deserving of the same respect I wish for myself.

That said, it’s certainly true that there are many people for whom I have absolutely no respect, and equally true that they put themselves in that position. If you want to see a few vivid, hateful, pukeworthy examples, I can easily direct you to a few paradigmatic Facebook groups that would illustrate my point. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that a world without the people who are behind such groups would be a marginally better world. Those online examples, unfortunately, furnish close parallels to people whom I actually know in the non-virtual world.

Concerning this last, it seems possible to adopt one of two attitudes – or perhaps to find some workable middle ground between the two: either 1.) assume the worst of people and insist that they earn your respect, or 2.) assume the best of people and grudgingly withdraw your respect when they prove themselves unworthy of it. I tend to err in the direction of the second of those options – I think it probably has something to do with a quality of open-mindedness. In this respect especially, I have generally found leftists and atheists to be far more open-minded than many of the Christians I’ve met – especially online, where they can vomit their sulfur without having to face their targets directly.


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