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Tolerance and intolerance

| Monday, April 24, 2017

In my political philosophy class last week, our discussion about the meaning of the word “intolerance” in John Rawls’s “A Theory of” provoked a strong and healthy debate about same-sex marriage. One of my classmates was discussing how people holding intolerant views in modern-day society ought to be treated by supposedly “tolerant” individuals. He argued that people who oppose government recognition of same-sex marriage are inherently intolerant because this recently-legalized institution is a “human right.” Thus, while a society should allow people to hold such views, those views are naturally wrong.

I wholeheartedly disagree. A practice like same-sex marriage is not a “human right” just because one happens to agree with it. Furthermore, the millions of Americans who oppose same-sex marriage aren’t fundamentally intolerant of LGBT people; they just disagree with the idea that the government should be recognizing same-sex marriages.

My argument in class, however, was more precise. I argued that the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage was, practically speaking, nothing more than a requirement that the government hand out entitlements in the form of marriage licenses. This was very similar to what Justice Clarence Thomas said in his Obergefell v. Hodges dissent: “Liberty has long been understood as individual freedom from governmental action, not as a right to a particular governmental entitlement.” Is a government entitlement the same thing as a “human right?” Certainly not.

Moreover, I pointed out that the government does not exist to make individuals feel loved; rather it exists simply to create and enforce the law. As Justice Thomas said, “The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.” Only individuals, not the government, have the ability to love and be loved by others.

It is not “intolerant” to believe that government entitlements are not human rights (they aren’t). It is also not “intolerant” to believe that the government is not responsible for giving people dignity (it can’t). I’m sure there are many people who would label me a homophobe for holding these views (I’m not). However, I welcomed this debate because civil disagreement is something that our society desperately needs.

Brennan Buhr
Feb. 24

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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