Does Self-Involvement Promote Tolerance on the Cheap?

I had a friend who as a young man was a macho, hard-drinking World War II hero. The surprise of his life came when he learned that his son was gay. The scene was every bit as awful as you would imagine, with hateful, scarring words uttered on both sides. But by the time I met him in his old age, my friend was a proud PFLAG member. At his funeral, his son offered a moving remembrance of the father he loved and the relationship they had managed to repair over many years of hard work.

The struggle my friend had with his son was painful and long-lasting, yet it was rooted fundamentally in their love for each other. They cared about each other enough to fight, and to persist through emotional agony and confusion until they re-forged their family bond. In some sense, to be deeply critical of another person’s private life is possible only if you are deeply interested in that person’s private life to begin with.

I would like to think that the aggregation of experiences such as my friend had with his son is a major reason why heterosexual Americans have grown collectively more tolerant of gay people. I am sure it accounts for some of it, but I worry that there is a less noble explanation for some of the new open-mindedness. Let me give an example of the sort of interaction that troubles me:

An undergraduate declares “I don’t get hung up on whether the guy living next door to me is gay”.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because his sex life isn’t my business. I just don’t care.”, he responds, with a note of pride.

“Would you care if your gay neighbor were unemployed, or had cancer, or were depressed and lonely and needed a friend?”.

After a pause: “No. That’s his business too.”

At my worst moments, I wonder if we are producing tolerance on the cheap as a byproduct of our increasing, technology-fueled self-involvement. Certainly, narcissistically-driven tolerance is better than activated bigotry: If you don’t care about your gay neighbor at all, you don’t care enough to spray paint hateful messages on his house or take a knife to his car’s tires. But I don’t think the tolerance that emerges from not giving a damn about other people generates the growth and understanding that can emerge when people struggle to know and to love each other over what at first seems an insuperable divide of difference.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Does Self-Involvement Promote Tolerance on the Cheap?”

  1. Tolerance, or the capacity to tolerate something, does not produce empathy or compassion. You tolerate if you don’t care. If you do care, you have to decide if you are going to be intolerant, or empathetic.

    I can see why your student had a “note of pride” in not caring about his hypothetical neighbor’s sex life; the student was neither intolerant nor empathatic. (Empathy need not require one to be homosexual; it can come from other sources, like recognizing the struggle for human equality.) Lacking empathy doesn’t necessarily mean the student would oppose gay rights, it could mean the student disagrees with the absence of equal rights in the first place. Perhaps the student cares that others care intolerantly, which would explain the “note of pride” associated with not caring. If you don’t care, you can’t be intolerant.

    To not care about the neighbor’s unemployment, cancer, or lonliness though, is to be unempathetic.

    1. @Em El: Thanks for a very thoughtful comment that pushes my thinking forward…the distinction you draw seems important.

  2. It’s a symptom of young men to be insulated from everything. No eye contact on the street, no acknowledgement of each other’s very existence in public as they mumbly bump about. I walk my dog and slowly overtake some 20x and he never even looks back – ever – to see who is coming. As a mugger he was easy meat. BTW, I’m 63 and not big, but he didn’t know. I know because this whole aura about them is mystifying. There’s too much self esteem among them. You can’t break into their island to comment on their non-use of turn signals without a hostile reaction. They don’t interact, don’t want to interact, and our society declines as we live amongst these asocial louts.
    I think it lies behind why they don’t vote.

  3. Shorter Richard Crews: Get off of my lawn, you lousy no good kids. You! Yeah, I’m talking to you…

  4. Interesting post. Who was it that said that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy.

  5. “In some sense, to be deeply critical of another person’s private life is possible only if you are deeply interested in that person’s private life to begin with. ”
    I don’t know about this. Couldn’t one have abstract beliefs that imply vicious intrusion into someone else’s life, yet have zero interest in them as a human being? One thinks of all the reductionist stereotypes, etc. that thrive in a vacuum of empathy.

    But there is something going on here that is interesting. I just returned from a trip to see family, many of whom I would describe as “hippie-tarians”. These folk seem to desire to live in a new age bubble in which the ideal is the world they create for themselves, without consciousness of the privileged position they hold in society, and a kind of benign callousness to the issues of concern to the rest of society. They sometimes live in small towns, or rural communes, devoting themselves to a cultural asceticism that is in many ways marvelously moral and well-intentioned. But from the outside, it seems decadent and – in a larger historical context – seems to lack any sense of obligation to the world beyond their domain. More often than not, enormous quantities of human and societal capital have been expended so that they might lie about in the age of aquarious, and their vision seems to have little room for repayment, and especially not re-investment and leveraging back into a society that has given them so much.

    There are deeper themes here about classical liberalism, conservatism, community and the meaning of freedom.

    1. Eli writes “In some sense, to be deeply critical of another person’s private life is possible only if you are deeply interested in that person’s private life to begin with. ” I don’t know about this

      I had a hard time conveying this idea, and knew the text didn’t quite do it, but it put it out there anyway for discussion. You are quite right than in the abstract we can hate whole swathes of people who don’t interest us at all. I was thinking though of “deeply critical” in the sense of how my friend and his son were deeply critical — they didn’t just hurl abstract epithets but they knew each other so well that they could be deeply critical, e.g., “Your macho greatest generation routine has destroyed our family’s ability to love for example when you did this and when you did that and Uncle Bill was so upset he left the house and Mom cried” etc., “deep” criticism in the sense of individualized, detailed personal rebuke, which you can only do if you really know someone well.

      I like your term benign callousness, it’s better than my clunky “narcissistically-driven tolerance”. What you are describing I have seen also, it’s sort of hipsterish “I’m cool with everything” stance but it’s grounded in solipism rather than an understanding and engagement with what one is putatively “cool with”

  6. “Hippie-tarians”. Ha! I love it. I’ve never been there myself but Burning Man seems to be the embodiment of that particular ethos.

  7. nah! … I’m a not-so-ex-Hippie that is very Leftist; pragmatic so democratic thru and thru. I’m old enough to be untouchable in all the Republican rape and pillage, but my concern for the unconcered youngun’s is frustrating and worrisome at times. My observations are true.

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