Tolerating the Intolerable? (Or: Why We Should Not be Tolerant of Chick-fil-A)


Tolerating the Intolerable? (Or: Why We Should Not be Tolerant of Chick-fil-A)

by Lindsey Mason

In our cosmopolitan society, what does it mean to be tolerant?  Should we always be tolerant of others’ opinions?  Or are we sometimes required to be intolerant?  I believe not all tolerance is morally required.  I believe there are opinions of which we ought not be tolerant.  I believe there are opinions we ought to criticize, reject, and discourage.  Below I will argue for which kinds of opinions we ought to tolerate and which kinds we ought not to tolerate.  The conclusion of my argument is that we should not be tolerant of Chick-fil-A.

This essay on tolerance is spurred by recent remarks by Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy.  Recently in the news, Cathy said the following two things: (1) “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit.”[1]  For many, this implied that Cathy was taking a stand against any non-traditional marriage, including gay marriage.  Cathy also expressed his belief on the matter in a radio show, saying, (2) “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.”[2]  This second quotation clarified the first, thus making it obvious that Cathy is against gay marriage.

Cathy’s comments have sparked interest from conservatives and liberals.  The predominant conservative line seems to be in agreement with Cathy for the “traditional” and “biblical” definition of marriage, and the common liberal line seems to oppose Cathy in favor of gay marriage.  Liberals are vowing to boycott the restaurant in protest, sometimes going too far as when mayors of Boston and Chicago said they would not allow Chick-fil-A business into their cities.  Conservatives are gathering support for Chick-fil-A, and they are even calling for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on August 1st.

But the most troubling—and frankly confused—part of this whole debate is over the notion of “tolerance.”  Throughout the World Wide Web, I’ve read several authors accuse liberals of committing the very crime of which they’re accusing conservatives.  Liberals are accusing conservatives of being intolerant of homosexuality; conservatives respond by accusing liberals of being intolerant of their biblical-based definition of marriage.  For example, an article by Denny Burk is entitled, “Chick-fil-A and the Irony of the Tolerance Police” to suggest that liberals are supposed to be policing tolerance, but are here showing their very intolerant hand.  Ken Coleman (the host of the radio show on which Cathy talks of “God’s judgment”) points out a similar “irony” when he writes: “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.”[3]  So the objection to liberals in this debate seems to be that they’re being hypocrites.  They’re accusing Chick-fil-A of being intolerant, and yet showing their own intolerance—the very thing they’re against.

I believe that this diagnosis of the problem is incorrect.  There are certain differences of opinion we ought to be tolerant of, but that does not mean we ought to be tolerant of anything someone else believes, says, or does.  Consider two kinds of disagreements.  Suppose Sally believes in God and Joe does not believe in God.  Because of Sally’s beliefs, she acts in certain ways: she prays regularly, she attends church services, and she congregates with fellow believers, etc.  Because of Joe’s beliefs, he doesn’t engage in any of these activities.  Sally and Joe disagree about whether God exists, and their disagreement affects how they each live their own lives.  But notice: Sally’s belief that God exists doesn’t interfere with the way Joe wants to live his life.  Simply believing that God exists doesn’t harm Joe in any way; it doesn’t take away any of Joe’s freedoms, and it doesn’t make Joe’s life worse in any way.  Similarly, Joe’s belief that God doesn’t exist doesn’t interfere with Sally’s life.  In such a case, Joe ought to be tolerant of Sally’s different belief.  He also ought to continue to let her go to church, pray, etc., if that’s what she wants to do.  Similarly, Sally ought to tolerate Joe’s belief.  She ought to continue to let Joe live his life without praying or going to church.  Sally ought to be tolerant of Joe’s different belief.  The point of the example is this: in a situation such as the one encountered by Sally and Joe—where the disagreement over whether God exists does not harm anyone or take away anyone’s freedoms—everyone ought to be tolerant.

Now consider a different kind of case.  Suppose Jefferson believes that it’s morally permissible to own slaves.  Because of this belief, Jefferson in fact owns several slaves, and he treats them as if they are animals.  He buys them and sells them like cattle; he beats them; he impregnates their wives.  In general, his belief that slavery is morally permissible entails that he believes that a certain class of people are subhuman, deserving fewer rights and privileges.  Tubman, however, disagrees with Jefferson.  She believes owning slaves is morally impermissible—we shouldn’t do it.  So, Tubman does not engage in any of Jefferson’s activities of owning slaves, beating them, buying and selling them like cattle, or impregnating their wives.  Instead, she believes that all people deserve equal rights, and that no human being should be treated as subhuman.  Jefferson and Tubman disagree about the issue of slavery, and this disagreement affects how they live their lives.  But notice a difference here compared to Sally and Joe above: Jefferson’s belief does interfere with the way Tubman wants to live her life.  Jefferson believes he should be allowed to capture and enslave Tubman, thus taking away her freedoms.  He believes that Tubman is subhuman, deserving fewer rights than he enjoys.  Should Tubman be tolerant of Jefferson’s beliefs?  No, she should not.  She should fight against people who believe and act as Jefferson does.  She should be intolerant of anyone who believes that another human being could be his slave.  Tubman’s intolerance of the differing opinion is not only morally acceptable—it is morally required.  When someone has a certain belief, and that belief takes away the life, liberty, or property of another, then that belief ought not to be tolerated.  Jefferson’s belief takes away the liberty of others.  And so Jefferson’s belief ought not to be tolerated.  Sally’s belief from above does not take away the life, liberty, or property of anyone else—not even Joe—and so her belief ought to be tolerated.  That is, we ought to be tolerant of others’ beliefs so long as those beliefs do not take away the life, liberty, or property of others.

Now back to Chick-fil-A.  When Cathy expresses his opinion that marriage should only be between a man and a woman, is his belief more like Sally’s or Jefferson’s?  What I mean by that is, does Cathy’s belief attempt to take away anyone else’s liberty?

I think Cathy’s belief is more like Jefferson’s (while obviously to a lesser degree).  By saying that marriage is only between a man and a woman, one is taking away another person’s liberty.  One is denying a gay man the right and privilege to join in marriage with another man.  One is denying a lesbian woman the right and privilege to join in marriage with another woman.  One is denying a bisexual man the right and privilege to join in marriage with another man.  And so on for bisexual women and for people who are transgendered.  There is a whole population of people here who are denied something—marriage—so that Cathy and others in agreement with him can hold a belief.  Cathy’s belief is not the kind of belief that calls for tolerance.  We should not stand by, idly tolerant of others’ beliefs when those beliefs take away the liberty of someone else.

Notice, however, that when someone believes that gay marriage is morally permissible, that does not take away anyone else’s liberty.  I’m not saying that every minister/priest/preacher has to actually marry homosexual couples.  They can choose not to participate in the actual marrying.  I’m not saying that every man has to go out, divorce his wife, and marry another man now.  That would be absurd.  Allowing gay marriage is not to demand gay marriage for everyone.  It is time to acknowledge that allowing Ben and Shaun to get married does not take away anyone else’s life, liberty, or property.  In fact, it doesn’t affect anyone else’s life at all.  So, if tolerance is ever called for, it’s called for in the case of proponents of gay marriage, and not for those who argue against it.  We ought to be tolerant of people who believe gay marriage should be allowed because that belief does not take away anyone’s liberty.  We ought to be intolerant of people who believe gay marriage is wrong because that belief takes away someone’s freedom to marry whomever he or she loves.

My goal here is quite narrow.  It is to show that the liberal position of criticizing Cathy is not hypocritical.  Tolerance is called for only when the belief or action being tolerated is different from your own, yet it is not taking away anyone else’s life, liberty, or property.  The belief that gay marriage is wrong should not be tolerated since it takes away other people’s liberty.  The liberal can hold this position—the position of not tolerating beliefs that take away others’ liberty—while agreeing that many other instances of tolerance ought to be encouraged.  One need not be tolerant of unjustified intolerance.  Cathy is the one being intolerant in the morally objectionable way, not the liberal.

7 thoughts on “Tolerating the Intolerable? (Or: Why We Should Not be Tolerant of Chick-fil-A)

  1. A belief does not have the power to curtail liberty. On the other hand, many beliefs that don’t curtail liberty are reprehensible, like the belief that the Holocaust never happened. Rather than defending people on the left who call Cathy an intolerant bigot (an ad hominem that may satisfy short term, but doesn’t offer much purchase ultimately), may we not just say that regardless of what Cathy thinks or says, the issue is what he does? He donate large sums of money to conservative lobbys; therefore I’m not going to give him money. This way the issue is public policy, not private belief. And as for tolerating his beliefs: I agree to tolerate them in a minimal way, because they’re protected by the first amendment. I am not therefore required to agree with them personally, which I take to be your point here. As you point out, this distinction gets muddied when you have calls for boycott ex officio.


    1. First off, since we all seem to be on the same team here, I do not want this to turn into some utterly fruitless protracted debate. That said, I do want to respond — both positively and negatively — to your comment here. On the positive side, I tend to agree that the largest wrong Chick-fil-A has done is to donate money to groups that seek to limit the rights of LGBT citizens, not simply a few statements one man has made. So, on that point we more or less agree.

      Where I diverge from your position, Patrick, is that I think beliefs and actions combined are what constitute the culpability in any given situation. By analogy, merely look at various degrees of murder or manslaughter, where the mens rea (the mental state, including beliefs about what will happen and why it should happen) has to be taken into account. And this applies to both legal and moral culpability in nearly every action. On top of that, I would argue that it is worth distinguishing between merely holding a private belief and acting on this by publicly uttering a racist or bigoted phrase, thereby (at least potentially) creating an environment that increases the likelihood of others limiting the liberty of some citizens. Think of the bully pulpit we often say the President has, and I don’t think it is limited to him. And here again, the mens rea has to be taken into account, because if it’s a leader of the NRA who talks about 2nd-Amendment solutions, then uttering this phrase publicly from his bully pulpit can have massive consequences. Or think of the famous-to-the-point-of-being-tired example of yelling fire in a crowded theatre. And so on. We could cook up examples all day, but I think you get my point.

      Simply holding a belief and not uttering it publicly does not generally have these social effects, and I think these social effects fall under the purview of moral scrutiny (though they also tend to fall under the purview of free speech). I would therefore say, following Lindsey’s example somewhat, that the types of beliefs one utters publicly ought to receive greater or lesser degrees of tolerance based on this moral scrutiny, which ought to be very much about the liberty of others and how it might endanger that. I would, to use a flip example, say that a person with practically no bully pulpit uttering the phrase “I like tacos” could come away from such moral scrutiny much better than, for example, the leader of a major corporation with a quite large bully pulpit saying something like “Gays should not have the right to marry.”

      Again, I tend to be with you, Patrick, that the focus really ought to be on these donations instead of his public utterances — though, it is worth noting that the donations are protected by exactly the same freedom of speech, so it might not be such a clear distinction. That said, however, my immediate response is to be much more tolerant of the public utterances than the donations, though both have a negative effect and both fall under the purview of moral scrutiny — to my mind anyway.

      To close, I reiterate that I do not want to create a situation where those of us on the same team (i.e., for LGBT rights and generally against corporations that behave like Chick-fil-A) in-fight fruitlessly. Of course some internal debate is healthy and good, but let’s not stray too far from the agreements we enjoy and the common causes we share. (And sorry if that sounds a little too hippie-dippie…)


  2. I agree with you overall, Okla, as I agree overall with Ms. Mason. Some formulations in the article require a bit more nuance, as for example: “The belief that gay marriage is wrong should not be tolerated since it takes away other people’s liberty,” which posits a very direct relationship between a person’s thinking and political reality at scale. Your response goes a long way toward supplying that nuance, although I would disagree that a person’s beliefs are analogous to the mens rea in a legal context – a quibble to be worked out elsewhere.

    You’re right that the donations are also protected speech, but consider the difference between these two ‘speech-acts’: Dan Cathy goes on a radio show and voices the dogma of the Christian right (vs) Chick-Fil-A donates millions of dollars to the Family Research Council. One of these speech acts concerns me, and potentially implicates me. The other doesn’t really. Right-wing pundits spew out metric tons of speech far more hateful than Cathy’s on a daily basis. In this respect, he’s an amateur.

    The rightwing cry of “intolerance” on this is just as misplaced, and just as risible, as when conservative pundits enlist cultural relativism as a defense for White Male Anger (“What about *our* culture?”) It’s hard to take seriously being chided for insensitivity when the people doing the chiding are clearly in a culturally dominant position: their “beliefs” are federal law.


    1. Sounds good. And yes, we can discuss the connection between beliefs and mens rea some other time. No legal theorist I know of thinks that beliefs are not part of mens rea — which is usually informed heavily by things like motive and intent (among other things), both of which require beliefs to be formed — so I’d be interested to hear your thinking on the subject.

      Also, I said pretty clearly that the donations are different ethically than the public utterances, to my mind anyway. I only warned that separating the two completely would be an error, since both are protected by the exact same right to free speech. But I think we actually have no disagreement on this point, or I at least have none with your claims that the donations are more serious and should be the primary focus of our attacks.

      Anyway…I’m glad these hairs were split and debate was had. I think you pointed out a place where the article could have perhaps been a wee bit clearer, though I think the overall premise is correct.


  3. The author writes, “The belief that gay marriage is wrong should not be tolerated since it takes away other people’s liberty. ”

    A belief does not take away anyone’s liberty. Suppose in her earlier example, that Joe believes that Sally is wrong to believe in God. Does that mean Joe’s belief takes away Sally’s liberty to worship the God of her choosing? No; Joe’s belief would only take away Sally’s liberty if he translated that into action – lobbying and making laws to curtail her right to religious freedom.

    We are a society that tolerates all kinds of beliefs. It is when those beliefs are translated into actions that “curtail liberty” as the author suggests, that we need to speak up.

    However, simply verbally expressing a belief doesn’t curtail liberty (unless it includes a specific call to harmful action in some form.)

    Perhaps the CEO of Chic Fil A is wrong in his belief, but he has the right to express it. And, we have the right to call for a boycott of his business if we dislike his opinions. This is called a free society.


  4. I read this yesterday and I agree with it in every way. I thought about it though, and wondered why this logical approach does not work in changing peoples’ opinions. I think it has to do with superstition and it goes back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. People who are opposed to homosexuality believe that it is harmful for humankind because it will bring down the wrath of God. Mr. Cathy, Pat Robertson and their ilk say these things outright, and so it’s easy for non-critically thinking people to look around at the problems in society and put the blame where it doesn’t belong. Unfortunately logic doesn’t seem to play in to the discussion.


  5. I have a great many conservative friends and we end up in vigorous discussions about a number of issues, including this one. One observation I’ve recently made to them has actually provoked some thought, that being that of all the proposed legislation on both sides of this issue, only the conservative laws actually infringe on the free practice of religion. No law enabling gay marriage requires a church to marry a gay couple if it violates their theological doctrine. Laws banning gay marriage, on the other hand, prohibit those churches which would otherwise willingly sanctify such unions from so doing.


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