The Road to Intolerance

Trayvon MartinOn April 1, a New York City newspaper reported that parents in Park Slope Brooklyn had declared war on ice cream carts in the park. “Along with the first truly beautiful day of the year, my son and I had our first ruined day at the playground,” a parent states online. “Two different people came into the actual playground with ice cream…I left with a crying 4-year old.” Another parent was quoted saying, “I should not have to fight with my children…just so someone can make a living.”

Undoubtedly, these parents saw themselves as well within their rights. They expect a world where they are not be inconvenienced with having to say “No” to their children. For the rest of us, we are left wondering how we got to the point where such a petty annoyance should be hailed as reason for civic intervention.

In the last two decades, society has gone through a two-pronged movement focused on issues of tolerance. On one hand, we have seen a relaxing of stances on morality-steep issues such as gay rights, out of wedlock births, and cohabitation without benefit of marriage. On the other hand, we have become more empowered to challenge those who in any way interfere with our personal space. Examples include a NYC mass transit rider who is routinely hailed in the media for shushing passengers who make noise in his train car, or personally, a recent incident where a woman walking a dog chastised me as I threw some crumbs onto the curb for a pigeon. How did this recent theme of self-righteous indignation take hold?

A clue might be found in the successful campaign against smoking. Watching the popular television series “Mad Men,” one is treated to scenes we now view with caustic humor, i.e. the gynecologist exam featuring a cigarette-puffing doctor. Yet, thinking about it: cigarette smoke wasn’t any less annoying in those days than now. People simply accepted that certain pleasures of others should be tolerated as a courtesy. Undoubtedly, one expected there would be reciprocity when one’s own idiosyncratic pleasures might have been distasteful to others. Such was society—a give and take—with an appreciation that one should be allowed those legal pleasures that got them through their day.

In time, we would be taught to accept the harmful nature of cigarettes. Likewise, the sight of a pregnant woman imbibing would also fall into folklore as the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome permeated the media. However, along with the passing of our naïveté about the dangers, we also seemed to feel empowered as vigilantes wherever the behavior of others was not to our liking. As our “desire” to have everything to our personal liking turns into our perceived “right” for such, we move ever more toward individuals less tolerant of those around us.

One has to wonder what role this growing intolerance has had in the proliferation of now popular “Stand Your Ground” laws. Florida reports that the incidence of self-defense homicides has doubled since the law went into effect. Rather than retreat, or mollify, this law has been translated by many as justification for shooting another at the first sign of jeopardy. Left with a societal shift of being more tolerant of other groups, we seem to have rechanneled energy into being less tolerant of the individuals around us. Perhaps every once in a while, we need to sit next to a smoker and let go of our mandate to police the activity. The benefit of an act of tolerance toward another is that it leads to peaceful effect on both parties.

By William Repicci

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