Should Parents Be Allowed to Opt Out of LGBTQ-Themed Lessons?
Tolerating 'intolerance' is not intolerance. But that depends on how you define the word.
Editor’s note: Just a quick note to say that if you haven’t already, make sure to check out our latest podcast episode, featuring for the first time a pseudonymous guest. In addition to being heated and contentious particularly in the second half, the conversation does a great job of capturing our ethos. It's possible to have profound disagreements about the biggest questions and do it with respect and in good faith.
For decades, people have either misunderstood or misused Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance.” The effort to condense a complex and layered philosophical debate into a series of cartoons should have been a red flag. Behold the Popper Tolerance Meme.
If you’re compelled to use Hitler to demonstrate a presumably universal “paradox,” then that, too, is not a good sign. (Popper himself had every reason to evoke the Nazis considering he actually lived through World War II. You, dear reader, did not live through World War II).
Popper’s Paradox is everywhere, even if most who use it aren’t familiar with its origins. Get in any contentious debate about hot-button social or cultural issues, and it’s likely someone at some point will say something like, “well, you can’t tolerate intolerance.” To which an appropriate response might be, “well, why not?”
To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The problem, especially today, is that we as citizens no longer agree (if we ever did) on what constitutes “intolerance,” and there doesn’t appear to be any neutral way to arbitrate between competing claims.
Take for example two examples I discussed in my latest Wall Street Journal article on the growing tensions between Democrats and American Muslims on issues relating to gender identity and sexuality.
First, in Maryland, not too far from where I currently live, yet another school board flashpoint.
In March, the Montgomery County Board of Education—the largest school district in Maryland, in a Democratic stronghold with a significant Muslim population—informed parents that they would no longer be notified when their children were reading from the school’s approved “selection of over 22 LGBTQ+-inclusive texts,” and that no opt-outs would be tolerated.
The objecting Muslim families were not calling for infringements on the rights of LGBTQ individuals. No calls for “discrimination.” Just parents asking for the right—in their own families and not in anyone else’s—to raise their children in line with their own First-Amendment protected religious convictions. They were not asking anyone to “opt-in” to some sharia-compliant vision of the state. They were simply asking to opt-out of what they viewed as a progressive ideological imposition. Here, school bureaucrats—not Muslims parents—would seem to be the ones on the wrong side of Popper’s Simplified Paradox.
The case of Hamtramck, Michigan is a bit more complicated. The small Detroit enclave could have been proof positive of pluralism in action, with communities deciding what values to promote (or not promote) through the local democratic process. It could claim the first and only all-Muslim city council in American history. But that’s when the problems began, pitting the council against largely white liberals. As I explain here:
The council passed a resolution in June prohibiting gay-pride flags from being displayed on city property. Former Mayor Karen Majewski described the decision as a “betrayal.” She and other Democrats felt they deserved gratitude for defending and supporting Muslims against Donald Trump’s travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries.
Let me restate that a bit differently. Karen Majewski felt that Muslims should be good, docile, and grateful for what liberals had done for them. They couldn’t, or shouldn’t, have opinions of their own that deviated from the liberal consensus, after that same consensus came to their defense. Seems a bit patronizing, no?
Interestingly, when the Hamtramck city council passed its ordinance, it did so by appealing to love of country and liberal neutrality, allowing only national, state, city and prisoner-of-war flags to be flown. Amer Ghalib, the first and likely only Yemeni-American mayor in the country, argued that city hall should maintain neutrality on contentious religious, racial and political questions.
Was this intolerance, or was it an effort to tolerate the relatively mainstream religious orientations of Hamtramck’s Muslim voters? The answer to this question hinges on what one thinks of the flag ordinance. Does not flying Pride flags constitute an infringement on the rights of LGBTQ individuals? To claim that it does would necessitate a rather expansive conception of “rights.” In the liberal tradition, rights are usually guaranteed for individuals (hence “individual rights”) but not necessarily for group identities.
Should duly elected officials be somehow legally compelled to display flags that run counter to their own religious or moral convictions? To say that the council cannot do what it did would be akin to saying that elected officials do not have the right to reflect their religious beliefs in public policy decisions. This is not to say that such religious beliefs are “good.” In fact, they may be quite bad, and we may cringe at what the Hamtramck council decided to do. But the badness, injustice, or unfairness of something has no bearing on whether or not it is an infringement on the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, unless one considers the right to fly particular flags on city property to be a constitutionally protected right (it is not).
Could we imagine a scenario where we would be comfortable with public buildings unfurling “Islam is good” or “Islam is the solution” banners? Or, maybe something like “evangelical Christians are citizens too”? The analogy isn’t quite precise, but it does get at something fundamental. In a diverse, pluralistic society, should local, state, and federal government refrain from promoting particular conceptions of the Good on contentious moral and social issues?
Where you stand on this may depend on where you sit. If you’re an orthodox believer in one of the three Abrahamic faiths, you’re likely to see the logic of Hamtramck council’s position. If you’re a secularist who believes, as a matter of principle, that religious values should not be reflected in public life, then you are likely to sympathize with the critics of the council. There is no neutral position, because none of us, as individuals, are neutral or can be. Inevitably, each of us, myself included, comes to the questions above with a bias. No matter what answer one reaches, it will be perceived as unfair to some people. As the political theorist Stanley Fish argues, “It cannot be a criticism of a political theory or of the regime it entails that it is unfair. Of course it is. The only real question is whether the unfairness is the one we want.”
Liberal tolerance, then, like all kinds of tolerance, is qualified. It is not above-the-fray and fair where other ideological orientations are biased and ideological. Liberal tolerance is, itself, an ideological position. It can’t help but become an ideological position. Again, Fish is worth quoting here: “It is the devout—those who feel compelled by their religious faith to acts of judgement and exclusion—who put liberal tolerance to the challenge, and it is my contention that it is a challenge liberal tolerance can only meet by turning into its opposite.”
To refuse to tolerate "intolerance is itself a form of intolerance. Or at least that’s my opinion, based on my own (quite real) biases.
Wisdom of Crowds is a platform challenging premises and understanding first principles on politics and culture. Join us!