When Does Intolerance Work?


In the wake of the Mozilla controversy, the Duck Dynasty controversy, the Chick-fil-A boycott/buycott, and the countless examples of intolerance and intimidation against conservatives on campuses across the country, it seems rather clear that —as Michelle Goldberg notes in The Nation – there is a “growing left-wing tendency towards censoriousness and and hair-trigger offense.”

But does this increasing intolerance work? In other words, does it help leftists impose their own social norms on society, or does it serve mainly to stiffen resistance and motivate opponents?

It does both, but where it works depends greatly on context. For years we’ve seen stigma defeat dogma (insults and mockery defeat beliefs) on college campuses, where relentless assaults on conservative values tend to leave students more liberal than when they arrived. It’s not hard to understand why. These attacks can make students feel isolated — like there’s something wrong with them — and the more casual adherents to any worldview find it relatively easy to shed impediments to social acceptance. This creates a vicious cycle, as shrinking minorities feel less and less empowered and the vocal majority feels increasingly vindicated in calling their opponents extremists or bigots.

But the same tactics can backfire, dramatically, when extended beyond the Left’s geographic zones of power. In attacking Chick-fil-A and Duck Dynasty, the Left went straight into the cultural and geographic heart of everyday American conservatism (here in Tennessee, I sometimes felt like I was the only person not watching the Robertsons). The attacks energized a critical mass of our friends and neighbors, leading to scenes like the ones my wife captured in our hometown of Columbia.

The end result of this intolerance is, ultimately, ever-greater polarization. Stigma is powerful unless it runs so contrary to cultural norms that it no longer functions as stigma. Insults that sting and isolate on campus tend to unite and enrage in “flyover country.” Blue America becomes more blue as red Americans silence themselves, the casual conservatives change course, and others simply move away. Red America becomes more red as we absorb the cultural refugees of the Northeast, even casual conservatives flirt with Tea Party-ism, and the committed conservatives strengthen their holds on key cultural institutions.

Red America, however, suffers from some profound disadvantages. First, most parents still send our kids through blue-dominated public education — exposing kids to contrary values that blue parents never have to contend with. Next, we still live in the left-saturated pop culture. But even with these advantages, blue intolerance has profound limits and — in my little corner of the country — is harming the very cause the Left purports to advance.

Increasingly when the Left talks about diversity, or the need to “coexist” (we’ve all seen the classic bumper sticker), this is what we see, and this is what we reject:

David French is a Senior Counsel for the ACLJ. A Kentucky native, David is a 1994 graduate (cum laude) of Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a 1991 graduate (summa cum laude, valedictorian) of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. David has been a commercial litigation partner for a large law firm, taught at Cornell Law School, served as president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and currently serves as a Senior Counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice. He is the author of multiple books, including A Season for Justice: Defending the Rights of the Christian Home, Church, and School and the upcoming Home and Away: The Story of Family in a Time of War.

Used with the permission of the American Center for Law and Justice.

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