This is my first foray into newAPPS waters-- and I thank the newAPPS coterie for the invitation!-- so I thought I’d start by tossing out a fairly straightforward philosophical claim: Tolerance is not a virtue.
When I say that tolerance is not a virtue, to be clear, I don’t mean to imply that tolerance is a vice. No reasonable moral agent, certainly no moral philosopher worth his or her salt, would concede that. Rather, I only want to point out that “being tolerant” requires at most little if not nothing more than refraining from being vicious. Not only is it the case that we don’t define any other virtue in this explicitly negative way, but we also don't generally ascribe any particular kind of moral credit to persons who are merely refraining from being vicious.
There are, of course, many good moral reasons to encourage our fellow citizens and agents to be tolerant, not the least of which is that ignorance and prejudice, to which we are all susceptible, incline even the best of us toward vicious behavior. In the unfortunate cases where ignorance and prejudice cannot be corrected or eliminated, we ought to try at least to de-fang them, ameliorate their effects and soften the severity of their blows. I take the value of "tolerance" training to be that kind of propaedeutic, a disarmament strategy, an effort to achieve the least-worst state of affairs, or something like a sort of intro-level philosophy course in being a moral agent.
So we have Lesson One for this intro course: if you want to be virtuous, you first have to stop acting like an a-hole.
Now, on to Lesson Two: you don't get any moral credit for not being an a-hole.
This particular issue-- what I call the "hyperinflation" of the value of tolerance-- has been brought to the fore over the course of the last couple of years for a number of reasons, almost all of which are in one way or another connected to our collective cultural valorization of the category of persons we call “allies.” The generic frame for understanding “allies” as such, especially with regard to LGBT issues but also in re other underrepresented, marginalized or oppressed groups, frames aliies as those for whom perpetuating the underrepresentation, marginalization or oppression of Group X-to-which-they-are-allied is conscientiously disavowed. The regrettable consequence of that sort of framing is, unfortunately, the proliferation of a category of attitudes/behaviors by self-identified allies who subtly (and probably unintentionally) vacate the meaning of the word "ally" of any real positive or progressive moral/political sense at all.
For what it’s worth, I don't want to pick on allies any more than I want to pick on tolerant people. That's not because I think allies (exemplars of tolerance, in many ways) exhibit some virtue that is beyond reproach, but rather because I think allies (some of them, not all of them, but more and more of them) don't exhibit any kind of positive "virtue" in their alliance at all.
I’ll concede that these merely-tolerant allies don't deserve moral opprobrium for their tolerance, but neither do they deserve any significant moral praise. They're not being vicious, thankfully, but they're not exactly being virtuous, either. Increasingly, what it means to be an ally is to have taken on a moral disposition that is fundamentally (and much too proudly) neutral. There was a time when "ally" was the antonym of "opponent" and the synonym of "advocate”—and it is still the case that some allies are really advocates—but more and more it appears that being an ally requires little more than a disavowal of the advocate/opponent dichotomy. If anything is required of today’s allies at all, it is only a sort of "fine by me" indifference.
Last month, on "National Coming Out Day," a group of students and faculty at my home institution (mostly "allies") wore t-shirts that read "LGBT? fine by me." (For what it's worth, the "fine by me" catchphrase is not the creation our local LGBT ally group; it's a trademark logo created by the Atticus Circle, which actually is an "advocacy" group.) At the time I was unconvinced, and for the most part remain unconvinced, that "LGBT? fine by me"says anything substantively more distinct than "Diversity? whatevs.” It’s difficult for most decent moral agents to disavow the basic sentiment “fine by me,” I’m guessing, but that’s mostly because we’ve been lulled into a kind of moral/political sleep by the enchanting "tolerance is a virtue" lullaby. When forced to stop and really think about whether or not "fine by me" is something worthy of being declared on a tshirt, on one’s body, as a person, a citizen or moral agent—whether or not it’s even a declaration of virtue at all—I suspect the writing is on the wall. When weighed in the moral balance, allies are found wanting.
If tolerance is all that is required of allies, if "fine by me" is the most substantive declarative statement that allies can make about themselves, then we ought to stop congratulating them on the deployment of their moral agency. Be an advocate or an opponent, we should insist instead. Or, if not one or the other, then concede that the matters on which you do not or cannot take a position don’t matter enough to warrant praise or blame. Even Bartleby, who at least refused, did more.
To bring it all back home to professional philosophy, it may be worth asking how much the current debate about the underrepresentation of women and people of color in tenured or TT Philosophy positions is framed the same way, that is, framed by (and for the benefit of) those who naïvely believe that declaring themselves as tolerant of difference is tantamount to declaring oneself an advocate for difference. To wit, when it comes to a certain category of “allies,” it’s no wonder that underrepresented groups collectively sigh: with friends like these…
(More on this topic here!)