The Intolerance of Egalitarianism

Noah Millman, a blogger over at The American Conservative, made this brilliant observation the other day in response to Rod Dreher’s rediscovery of tolerance and acceptance in the small Louisiana town where he grew up and recently moved back to:

Not being a Southerner, I can’t comment on Rod Dreher’s post on freak-toleration from direct personal experience. But I suspect part of what he’s seeing is the difference between a hierarchical society and a conformist egalitarian one, the difference between hierarchical Louisiana and conformist Iowa being somewhat similar to the difference between hierarchical (and famously eccentric-tolerating) England and conformist Sweden. A hierarchical society depends for its stability not on the notion of everybody being the same but on the notion of everybody knowing his or her place. And you can make some kind of a place for just about everyone. The question then is whether people will tolerate being kept in their place by others when it starts to chafe. 

My own hometown, New York, follows neither of these models, but is dynamically heterogeneous. We pride ourselves on being “diverse” and “tolerant” but what that winds up meaning in practice is that the overall society is a negotiated coalition among smaller sub-cultures, each of which tends to figure a surprisingly high degree of internal conformity. When a group is struggling with other groups for a relative share of power, dissent is harder to tolerate. On the other hand, when no group actually dominates local society, disaffiliation – to join another group, or none – without physically leaving becomes a much more realistic option.

Millman puts his finger on something very, very important, something I noticed not long after I arrived at this midwestern Lutheran seminary. The American Midwest is very egalitarian. And very conformist. In fact, that intolerant conformism is because of its egalitarianism, and not in spite of it.

Some years ago, when I Jennifer and I were living and working in Logan, Utah (I was a reporter for the Herald Journal), I had a conversation with her (ELCA) pastor (I was not Christian at the time, and worshiped with the small group of Muslims at the Logan Islamic Center) about what it was like to live as a member of a tiny religious minority among the Mormons. The pastor did not like it. I asked him why? (What I really I wanted to ask was: Do they forbid our worship services and arrest us? Make us wear distinctive marks on our clothing? Force us to convert upon pain of death?) His response was interesting — they do not accept us as fellow Christians.

(Well, of course the Mormons don’t, I replied, since they have a very different understanding of what it means to be church then Lutherans do, and Lutherans are not part of that understanding of church.)

But I also contemplated his essential angst: They do not accept us. This, I think, is the core of liberal understanding of tolerance. Mere tolerance is not enough — acceptance is what is needed. (Another ELCA pastor in another circumstance used basically those words.) The pastor in Logan lived at the intersection of the Midwestern Lutheranism’s political and cultural piety (his background was Norwegian). It is not enough to merely tolerate people — they must be accepted as well. They must be equals in the community and in society.

I know, this sounds really good on the face of it. And in many ways, it is. But it is also has a long, dark, cold shadow. The main problem I have experienced with this notion of “tolerance as acceptance” is that it isn’t tolerance at all. It doesn’t tolerate real difference or non-comformity. It merely seeks the expansion of conformity. And it has been my experience that actually makes life harder for non-comformists. Not easier.

I see the ELCA’s struggle with homosexuality and in particular the ordination of clergy in open homosexual relationships. (Please note, I am generally supportive of what the ELCA is doing in this regard, since I believe it means we are open to God’s call.) Liberals call this diversity, and maybe it is, but what it really means is that grounds of acceptable conformity have been expanded. You can be gay, and married, and still conform to the expected social norms since gay and married has been added to social norms. For the liberal (in general), since no one should be discriminated against for things they cannot control — race, gender, and now sexual orientation — certain expressions of these things are now part of allowable conformity. (So long as they are phlegmatic and bourgeois.)

But in a conformist society like Millman’s Midwest, if we are all more or less the same, then we must all be more or less the same. Expanding the ground of allowable conformity actually makes things more difficult for non-conformists (of whatever kind, and this usually means people who are simply different) because in saying the society will now accept you for the things you cannot change, it will become less accepting of things you can (or should be able to) change: aesthetic choices, interests, outlook on life, so on. So, fail to conform to the expanded norm — a big deal in a society that is averse to obvious hierarchy (midwesterners are extremely uncomfortable with me when I use sir and ma’am) — is the fault of the one who fails to conform, and not of the society or community in which they find themselves.

Because this model of acceptance is not of individuals but of abstract groups of people into which individuals can be slotted. Midwesterners in general, and ELCA Lutherans in particular, love stereotyping. (“Tagging” as one pastor put it.) In fact, prior to being in this culture, I’d never been among people for whom stereotyping was such a virtue.

(I grew up in the 1970s — stereotyping people was wrong. THAT’S what lead to discrimination and racism.)

At this point, I have to admit that I am not so interested in acceptance. I like tolerance. Can we build a community here and generally be left alone, to do what we have been called to do? Or leave people alone who want to be left alone? That to me is the high water mark of life in society. I am not so interested in equality as I am in liberty (both individual and collective), and I am perfectly okay with significantly more inequality and social unfairness than a lot of people in the ELCA simply because I focus on how much freedom there is for those who choose or feel called to not conform. And building community among like-minded non-conformists. (Which, yes, is itself a type of conformity. But this is why I really like Millman’s city.)

My theological model for church is exile. I realize that is a difficult model for the ELCA to wrap it’s heart around because it is a confession of settled people who don’t see themselves as exiles and who don’t think exile is a desirable or normative human condition. Which is funny, given that once, so many of them packed up and migrated — Abraham-like — to a land far away.  Most human beings wish to belong to a community of other human beings. I know I do. And I also know that here I’ve found a community that actually seems to want me in its midst. (Which, to be fair, was also true of the Saudi Muslims in knew in Columbus, Ohio.) But I also know the brutal and fiery result of the community’s demand for conformity. No matter how egalitarian and accepting a community or society will be, someone will always find themselves on the wrong side of the demand to conform, who will be thrown underneath its wheels, who will always be wounded by it. Because it will be experienced as brutality. Or it will actually be brutal. (It was both for me.) I don’t necessarily want to be accepted, or rather, I do not want to be made to fit into some great broad category that has been predetermined as “acceptable.” I merely want the space to do what God has called me to do among the people God has called me.

Frankly, I want to be tolerated. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.