Social tolerance: progress or simply change

by George Hatjoullis

Most people would regard the ‘West’ as more tolerant today than say 50 or 100 years ago. On closer inspection this is not as obvious as one might think. The issue of interest is social tolerance and not legal tolerance. It is about social sanction of behaviours and views that are legal. It seems relevant to have this discussion following the resignation of the CEO of Mozilla for making a $1000 donation to an organisation opposing gay marriage some years ago. It is not difficult to imagine (and no doubt examples exist) of people in similar positions having to resign for supporting the decriminalization of homosexuality many years ago. The question that arises; is society more tolerant or have we merely changed the norms?

Tolerance is about the acceptance of diversity in behaviour and views. Conceptually it can be measured by the extent to which individual behaviour and expressed views can deviate from an established social norm without social sanction. A society can only be judged as more tolerant to the extent that it accommodates a greater dispersion of individual views around the central norm. It is not more tolerant simply because the norms have changed to accommodate expressed views and practices that were previously not tolerated. The need for Brendan Eich to resign would suggest that we have not grown more tolerant. The norms have merely moved.

Society, it seems, has no tolerance for people who openly oppose gay marriage. The opposition has not stopped gay marriage becoming legal. Nor is the opposition resorting to illegal acts to further their opposing view. The opposition has no necessary issue with homosexuality or civil partnership. The issue is with the idea of gay marriage. The opposition deems the concept of marriage to be inherently heterosexual and believe that, by allowing gay marriage, the concept of marriage is fundamentally changed and that their own relationships are in some way diminished. The opposition want to keep marriage as uniquely heterosexual. The implication is, of course, that homosexual relationships are fundamentally different to heterosexual relationships.

The LGBT community do not want to allow this social difference to persist. They want all pairings between two humans to be deemed socially equivalent. Western society has accepted the LGBT position as a new norm and is intolerant of anyone arguing that a heterosexual relationship might be, in any meaningful sense, socially different. Public figures cannot hold an opposing view, even in private, without facing social pressure to cease to be public figures. Brendan Eich need not change his view. Nor is there any law that says he cannot hold and express such a view. However, there is at least one institution in which he cannot hold senior office because he is known to hold this view (or at least to have held this view).

The social issue is not whether heterosexual and homosexual relationships are different but whether heterosexuals should be allowed to hold the view that they are different and use some symbol to signify the difference even though the two relationships are treated equally before the law. For those who wish to see their heterosexual union as socially distinct (for whatever reason), the tolerance of society is sorely tested. The society does not become more tolerant simply by changing norms to accommodate the previously excluded. It also should be judged on how it deals with the previously privileged. Has there been progress or merely a change of norms and a transfer of power?


This blog is about the extent to which society accommodates diversity and not about the question of gay marriage. It is merely used as an illustration. The key point is the last sentence. I have no strong view on the issue marriage, gay or otherwise, or indeed on relationships in general. The debate is inextricably linked to religion and faith and this is a can of worms I would not wish to open on this blog.