Monday, January 10, 2005

On Measuring Tolerance

By all means, let's be tolerant of others. But let's tread carefully when we try to measure the tolerance of others.

One commonly used metric of tolerance is the number of minority friends one has: people who wish to prove their status as "tolerant" often trot out as credentials a list of minority friends. The idea behind this is that an "intolerant" person would not have minority friends. I have to say I find this notion amusing. A good friend of ours hates Mexicans with a passion, despite the fact that he is of Mexican heritage himself. (And no, he doesn't hate himself or have serious psychological problems.) Favorite Husband, his best friend, is Filipino. If Filipino isn't a minority, I don't know what is. So we have here a person who is intolerant, and a minority himself, and yet has minority friends.

Leaving aside the thorny problem of how one defines "friends" for this purpose, let's consider how a "tolerant" person might prove their continuing tolerance in the event that he should fall out of friendship with, say, his lesbian friend. Does he seek out another lesbian friend so that he can fill his quota of lesbian friends? How would you feel if somebody wanted you for a friend primarily because you were of a minority? Worse yet, how would you feel if someone told you that he wasn't interested in your friendship right now because he already had a lesbian friend and had filled his quota?

Moreover, what do you do if you're not a social enough person to maintain such a large number of friendships at the same time? Does that make you intolerant because at the moment you don't happen to have a lesbian friend? Perhaps you could "double up" by making friends with multiple characteristics. So, are you going to go looking specifically for a disabled Latina lesbian Republican to complete your collection?

And to top all that off, what about demographics? A study recently done in Britain (sorry, can't remember where I found the link) showed that Britons, living in an overwhelmingly "white" country, have few non-white friends-- in fact, about the number you'd expect if people chose their friends randomly-- and yet this was touted as proof of racial intolerance. If everyone were "tolerant enough" to have a gay friend, and only 1% of the population is gay, then there would have to be some quite popular gay people out there. If you are Chinese and you go to an all-Chinese church and your friends are thus predominantly Chinese, does that make you a racist? Would it make you a racist if you were a white person going to an all-white church and your friends were predominantly white?

Now, I'm not saying this is what "tolerant" people are actually thinking. But it's what the attitude of trotting out your list of minority friends implies. If you really were tolerant, these issues of race etc. wouldn't matter to you when you were making friends; and if they didn't matter, you wouldn't think to bring them up. It's the same thing that bothered me about now-Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and his adopted daughter.

Thus we see that using the number and kind of one's friends as a proxy for tolerance is not at all a good idea. People make real friends with others because something "resonates" between them-- usually they have a common interest or history, or their personalities complement each other. People do not (in general) make friends based on filling a tolerance quota, so it is absurd to measure tolerance based on the ethnic makeup of their set of friends.