Intolerance — Why it happens and why it can be important to society

This year sees another landmark in legislative changes in my home state, Colorado, this time coming in the form of victory for same-sex civil unions. For several years there have been attempts to get such legislation passed in Colorado, which extends the same rights granted to heterosexual civil unions to homosexual civil unions, but until now has not gone through thanks to bitter opposition and intolerance.

For many of us, this legislative victory is also a victory for civil rights – we understand that sexual orientation shouldn’t exclude certain people from experiencing the same treatment under the law as given to others. This is one of the founding (and still being realized) core principles of this nation, and is perhaps why it is so easy to become passionate about such issues, at least for myself.

The oh-so charming WBC. Photo by John Lemieux.

The oh-so charming WBC. Photo by John Lemieux.

However, I don’t need to tell you that not everyone thinks this way. From the Klu Klux Klan to the Westboro Baptist Church to Focus on the Family, there are plenty of Americans who disagree with this particular notion and for that they are frequently shamed and disparaged. Yet they persist. Though the KKK and their crude tactics are long past their prime, that mentality of intolerance has not entirely disappeared, manifesting itself in more socially “acceptable” ways – WBC-led protests of veterans’ funerals as God’s punishment for a nation that “allows” homosexuality and other sin to go on unhindered, for example.

So why do these individuals feel so compelled to band together and promote these causes – ones often counter to what many of us would consider inevitable civil rights and social progress? Are these simple-minded nut jobs who know nothing but hate and anger? Sure, some certainly might be, but I’m going to shock you here and tell you that most of these individuals are actually quite rational. There’s nothing “crazy” about them.

Without going too deeply into academic jargon and social theory 101, there is a sociological phenomenon that describes this succinctly: “othering.” Simply put, it’s an “Us and Them” scenario, where you are part of a group and there are other members of other groups, and you recognize this. Usually this doesn’t lead to conflict – but it creates an easy way of defining who we are. Defining who we are is something important to all humans, and we do this by joining groups. Often times these groups are given to us at birth (I didn’t choose to be a heterosexual, for example, but it is a group of which I am a part), but sometimes we do choose to join them later (I decided I liked sociological theory, so now I’m a nerd, for example). Either way, they come together to give you those adjectives you use to describe yourself in your Craigslist personals ad.

Why am I talking about this? Because othering is important, and everyone does it. Everyone has an innate need to know who they are, who is like them, and who is not. It’s arguable this is rooted in survival instincts, where the need to aligns oneself can literally be a life or death matter (in some cases, it still can be today). Either way, humans have an innate need for identity. We need something to call “our team” and something to rally against, “their team,” which, by their very virtue of not being our team, possesses traits or qualities that is counter to our own (“they’re bad people, Billy”).

And by the vary nature of this process of defining oneself or one’s group as “not that,” humans need varied groupings to make such comparisons. I don’t need to tell you that it does sometimes get taken too far, to realms of oppression and violence – this is when we see people like the British National Party, the Klan, and Mel Gibson come out to play.

Why do people have to choose these intolerant groups? Well most of the time it is how they were raised, yes. Your parents and those you socialize with in your youth guides who you will be and how you think. This is why homeschooling has risen in popularity, especially among Evangelicals, in the US – it, in theory, would allow greater control over a child’s socialization (but there are many flaws with that thought process and personally I find the notion and its motives a bit nauseating). Even if it is not a group or way of thinking one is raised into – individuals are usually brought around by friends and a desire to join a group (this wouldn’t necessarily happen if they were already identified with a group; everyone wants to belong, don’t they?).

Believe it or not, these people are useful in their own way. Photo by John Lemieux

Believe it or not, these people’s intolerance can have a positive effect on the rest of us. Photo by John Lemieux

So if they’re raised this way, to become such scornful, intolerant people as adults, or even choose to join such a group later, what are the rest of us to do? We have to understand that this is just an expression of innate human tendencies, misdirected as they are. But we also have to keep in mind that these groups are serving an important function – for those of us who consider ourselves “tolerant” (a relative term, I assure you), we need folks like the Westboro Baptist Church as a reminder of how not to behave – the “other team.”

And for this, we must thank them, really. Though it can be alarming and even enraging at times to see the horrible rhetoric coming from groups like that, the best thing we can do on this side is remember that history is proceeding against intolerance, and that societies (yes, even ours!) are in a constant state of change, whether anyone likes it or not.

Yes, I do believe “othering” is deeply rooted in human behavior but do not mistake this for an inevitable hatred and division – as a species we have the ability and maturity to redirect that tendency toward harmless diversions while achieving equality and tolerance. What we should not do is return their venom and anger in kind, but instead “kill them with kindness” – we must not be their “others” but instead their fellow human beings, and the best way for them to see and realize this is through our actions.