Are there "cutoff points" for various forms of intolerance?

Recently, I was reading a collection of George Orwell’s essays. In one of them (in which he was writing about Salvador Dali) he groups homosexuality with necrophilia and calls it a ‘vice’. Now, Orwell was a socially progressive person with whom I agree on many topics, and I found that his homophobia didn’t bother me that much because the essay was written in the 1940s, a time when gay rights wasn’t even close to being on the public radar. Obviously it would be nice if a person was so incredibly progressive that at that time they thought homosexuality was fine, but it’s not a thing I expect.
This brings up the idea of “cutoff points” for intolerance. Another example in Lincoln. It’s often pointed out tat he didn’t believe in full equality for blacks. However, in the mid 1800s, that sort of racism is expected. I’m not saying there weren’t people who believed in full equality - there were - but it’s so rare that it can’t be expected.
My first question is, is the idea of acceptable intolerance in historical figures correct? Would you say that Orwell’s homophobia is more forgivable than Orson Scott Card’s? (If you don’t believe in same sex marriage, just focus on cutoff points for racism, sexism, etc.) Or is intolerance, at any time, unacceptable?
My second question is, is it possible to pinpoint the exact years, or at least decades, when the cutoff happened? When did it stop being acceptable to deny women the vote? When did it stop being acceptable to approve of slavery? Now, with most issues (slavery especially) your beliefs depended on your age and where you grew up, but even so, when should it have been apparent to a well educated person that these intolerences were outdated?
These are questions I’ve been thinking about a while, so hopefully this all makes sense.

I think that when looking back at any historical figure, you need to take the context of the milieu in which they existed. Even if it was the 90’s. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Bill Clinton (as dictator) didn’t go far enough to make homosexuals be equal. While you may not elect him again (to…er…dictator) because you want someone more for those rights, realize that 20 years ago was different than today, both socially and politically.

As for knowing when the cut off is, it’s really hard to see especially within one’s own lifetime. You can look back 80 years and go “Yeah, that was when the change was pretty much in place” but when you are in the middle of a change, it’s hard to tell where the beginning and middle are. Sometimes the end is apparent, sometimes not.

But that’s actually very natural. The way that progress is achieved is that, through most of history, each generation has been more liberal than the last. More education helps with this, but even just access to new things (Technology, ideas, etc) lets this process happen.

In what sense does it matter whether anyone alive today accepts or forgives a belief held by someone long ago? I very much doubt that George Orwell or Abraham Lincoln are at all concerned about what whether we accept or forgive them.

A more useful question is, how do we judge the thinking of historical figures? Many people quote the words of a figure such as Benjamin Franklin today, with the implication that since we admire him, his ideas should carry weight. Franklin held many ideas that were remarkable for his time, including opposition to slavery, religious tolerance, free speech, and a free press. On the other hand, he didn’t show any interest in ideas such as women’s suffrage (as far as I know) or protecting the rights of American Indians. My attitude is that Franklin’s views are still very admirable and worthy of study, and that much that he wrote should still be influential, despite his acceptance of some things that no one accepts any more.

I don’t know if there’s a “cutoff point”, but it is appropriate to judge historical figures differently depending on the common attitudes of the times. And in all times, I think people should be judged more for their actions than their political views – that is, Thomas Jefferson had some brilliant political ideas (along with some not-so-brilliant), but he also treated his slaves with extreme brutality in many cases. Jefferson’s behavior towards other humans is far, far more damning than any political views – even some of his vile views about black people.

Ben Franklin is a good example, in my opinion, of a pretty good guy in a rough time… he was early to the anti-slavery party. Washington and Jefferson had great minds, but they were party to some monstrous acts, and they were smart enough to know better.

What I find so fascinating about the same sex marriage debate from a sociological perspective is that we are actually living through one of those transition periods right now. I became a same sex marriage supporter (and believer in its inevitability) in 1976, but of course the attitudes and acceptance level back then were completely different from what they are now. I spent a long time believing in same sex marriage while not condemning people who didn’t, simply because the idea was so new and strange. I think it’s only been very recently that I would definitely consider someone who opposed it to be bigoted and intolerant. I’ve noticed that I now talk about the issue as if there is one clear right side, and am shocked when someone that I like doesn’t agree with me.

If I can make this distinction in my own lifetime, I can certainly make it for historical figures. I think it’s possible to draw some very strong lines (I have no tolerance for anyone who supported slavery after the end of the Civil War, for example), but they come only after the major decisions have been made and the battle is essentially won. I don’t think there will be true cutoff point for same sex marriage until it is the law in all 50 states.

I will make the point that the intolerance itself (whether historical or not) is always unacceptable. The question here is whether the people being intolerant are themselves always unacceptable, and in my experience, the answer is no.

[as a complete aside, in doing some research I see that the 1780 Act that gradually ended slavery in Pennsylvania provided a specific exemption for members of Congress and their personal slaves. Gotta love Congress, hypocritically looking after themselves for over 200 years.]

Exactly. But if you’re going to say it was acceptable for Clinton not to fight for gay rights back in the 90s (which I think is reasonable), when exactly does it become unacceptable not to? In the early 10s? Late 10s? Have we not reached that point yet? When was the point where the social and political landscapes changed to such a degree that pushing for gay rights is expected of a Democratic candidate?

I think you answered your question of why it matters in your second paragraph. It may not be logical, but humans tend to value the opinions of figures seen as ‘smart’, even when they’re not speaking about what they’re known for being gifted at. It’s the reason Wikipedia has an entire page devoted to the subject of Einstein’s religion - did Einstein have any special power allowing him to know if there was a God? No, but his reputation as a genius in science and mathematics leeches over to all other topics. It’s also the reason Hitler being a vegetarian and opposed to animal cruelty surprises us.
You gave an example of Benjamin Franklin, and his acceptance of things we find unacceptable today. Franklin was an extraordinarily progressive person, but women not having the vote didn’t seem to trouble him. Now, women’s suffrage wasn’t a widely supported idea in the late 1700s, and Franklin couldn’t have been expected to support it. But what if, instead of women’s suffrage, Franklin believed in slavery and was known for violently abusing his slaves? Just like Einstein’s scientific genius, that negative aspect of his personality would leech over into his other writings for most people, whether that’s justifiable or not. To me, that’s why examining historical figure’s stances on issues and deciding whether they’re excusable or not is important; unjustifiable actions or beliefs in one small part of their lives can take away from their other works.

It is really fascinating to watch the ebb and flow of human tolerance. I agree that in the US, the cutoff for gay rights isn’t quite here yet. This is a bit off-topic, but it also can be interesting to predict cutoffs in the far future - for example, I’m a meat-eater, but I definitely think that there will come a day when eating meat will be looked down upon by society and considered unacceptable - the same goes for our current method of factory farming and possibly out wasteful uses of water.

I’ve thought about the same thing myself. One of the things I thought when I first became a supporter of same sex marriage was that I strongly believed that it would happen in my lifetime, and that I always wanted to be on the right side of history (this was immediately following the civil rights era, and I was very familiar with the people who had ended up on the wrong side in that debate). I have definitely considered whether I mgiht end up on the wrong side of history when it comes to treatment of animals, but 1) I don’t consider a complete change in that issue to be inevitable, or something that will occur in my lifetime, and 2) I like eating meat.

Sometimes in the past we do not realize how scientifically backwards people can be. Phrenology was a real science for a while, and studies about bodily humours were considered rigorously vetted academic truths. I forgive people somewhat for being misled by the best science of the day, that’s my cutoff point. However, if they simply feel nothing for a suffering person when that person looks like you except the skin is different color, then I have less sympathy for those bigots

I think a good example of intolerance is when you are shown contrary examples and choose to ignore the evidence. Borat’s antisemitism (albeit fiction) is more tolerable because he didn’t actually know a single Jewish person. Not even comparable to Hitler, even before extermination was a policy (there I Godwinned it). If you’re a shit to your nice gay neighbors, then you’re past any cutoff. And if you have no concept of something (e.g. suffrage not being a thing), it’s hard to even think of it (“Are you pro or anti skub?”). (Unrelated but interesting fact: the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden gave women full voting rights… in 1991).

Lincoln was chastised by his bud Frederick Douglass, and eventually changed his opinions on many things. And in the Civil War era, progressive white and black people both though repatriation to Liberia was a swell idea, nowadays we don’t consider it a progressive idea so much because a type of extreme segregation.

People are content to say "He was wrong about X, therefore ignore all his other contributions. Lamarck was wrong about inherited traits, but otherwise he was an early booster for evolutionary theory. He operated on an assumption that seemed right at the time. Much later on, some folks wanted to re-investigate that and created Lysenkoism/Michurinism. At that point it’s harder to forgive. And that it killed lots of people didn’t help. Past a certain point you can’t plead ignorance.

Like I said, when in the change, it’s hard to see the beginning, middle, or end. Gay rights has been an advancing cause since the 80’s. One day, we will give the last homosexual person equal rights, and no one will care that they are homosexual. As they lock straight people in their Maple mines, we will be able to look back and go “That was the ending!” Until then, it’ll be hard to discern when it became socially unacceptable to be that way.

Basically, the farther you look back, the clearer each “cut off point” becomes. There isn’t much hope for us until after the social change has passed to claim the finish line.

As a further aside, and I won’t be discussing it further in this thread to avoid hijacking, I can sort-of see the reasoning behind this, if there was a sense that a congressman was in effect an ambassador-official for his home state (coupled with a pre-Constitution outlook that the states were akin to individual nations with a loosely-aligned federation) and if his duties required him to travel across various states to get to DC, he should not be deprived his his legal property (as defined by the laws of his home state) even if he must pass through a state where the laws differ.

My take may be completely wrong, of course, but I can picture this line of reasoning being considered acceptable in 1780.

I don’t know about that, but I humbly submit the 2004 election as the year the opposition should have looked at the arguments coming from their side and asked what in the world they were doing. Before then I can imagine most straight conservatives hardly paying attention to the topic, but in 2004 it was front and center.

“We tend to scoff at the beliefs of the ancients. But we can’t scoff at them personally, to their faces, and this is what annoys me.”
– Jack Handey

I’d say 2004 is a fair year for whether Democratic candidates should have addressed the issue on the gay rights side. Like Farin says, in a hundred years (or at least fifty) it’s going to be a lot easier to pinpoint the dates.

I think we sympathize with people misled by bad science more than bigots because in our society, we respect science; even if they believed the wrong thing, at least they were trying to understand the world around them. But for a long time, people were convinced by bad science that black people were inferior to whites - also, during Hitler’s reign, Mengele supplied many of the major German scientific institutes with studies and documents supposedly proving the inferiority of the Jewish people… Would you say that there’s something more understandable about being a bigot if your beliefs are backed up from science at that time, or is it no excuse?

This is true, and I think the isolation from whatever diversity you’re fighting against (gay people, blacks, immigrants, etc) is one of the reasons some areas are extremely socially conservative. As a politician or activist, it’s a lot easier to convince everyone that homosexuality is evil when you live in a small town in Alabama with no gay population than when you live in NYC.
Also, I googled Appenzell Innerrhoden, and according to Wikiepedia, for reasons unknown, in the early 2000s they became a popular destination for nudists. :smiley:

Sometimes these “cutoffs” are not linear. For instance, some Reconstruction era political figures such as Ulysses Grant were far more “progressive” on race relations than Woodrow Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt 30-40 years later.

My judgement of historical figures in these areas rests on these principles:

  1. To what degree were these people products of their upbringing?
  2. What did they do to reform society or enact change?
  3. Were there critical voices that challenged these views?

I’m confused about why there needs to be a cutoff because I’m not sure why I need to excuse Orwell’s homophobia, or Lincoln’s low opinion of the native abilities of African slaves. I don’t need to excuse them, they were wrong. If they said other things I find to be excellent, it doesn’t excuse them, and their noxious beliefs don’t taint their more proper beliefs (at least in these cases).

There’s two reasons why I don’t wound up about them, though: first, they’re dead and past, so there’s no correcting them or ensuring that their noxious beliefs are rebutted–those arguments have been won; second, their noxious opinions are “besides” their other beliefs, and don’t particularly affect them. Politics And The English Language doesn’t rest its arguments on whether or not homosexuality really is vile; Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War wasn’t driven by his beliefs in whether blacks were the equals of whites. I don’t find their bigotries acceptable, just irrelevant.

To the extent that we discuss how their beliefs were in step with their times, it’s because we tend to see agreement with one’s times as indicating (absent other evidence) that their beliefs were less deliberate or reflective. Someone who casually believed, in Mississippi in 1820, that blacks were inferior to whites, is going to get less condemnation than Nathan Bedford Forrest, who founded the KKK. This isn’t to excuse them, either, it’s just to calibrate our degree of academic blame for someone long past our condemnation.

It would be different if their noxious beliefs were foundational, somehow. If Orwell’s arguments for socialism ended “and that’s how we keep the dirty homos from spreading their vile ways”, then I wouldn’t look to Orwell for support for my own socialist beliefs, and I wouldn’t hold him up as an intellectual forebear.

We tend to think that individuals do their own thinking.

Or, to be more precise about it, we tend to restrict our opinions and perspectives that run contrary to that, such as an allegiance to determinism, for example, to threads specifically devoted to the notion that the contents of individuals’ minds is determined by other things, and then, everywhere else, to behave as if we think that individuals do all of their own thinking.

The true situation is that individuals do a fair amount of choosing from among the currently popular thought-memes and opinion-memes available to them, and do a tiny amount of synthesis of new idea so as to make small changes in those existing socially-shared thoughts and opinions; but the overall effect is still one of spongelike absorption of the ideas and mores and values and opinions of the surrounding society. “Thinking”, in the sense that we tend to attribute to individuals, is more accurately performed by the species over a longer stretch of time.

I can imagine you might be thinking WTF does this have to do with this thread?, but I think it’s core-pertinent. Individuals are of their timeframe and context. We individuals of the 21st century western civ culture did not, as individuals, reach our liberal tolerant conclusions; 21st century western civ reached those conclusions and when we look back in time we’re reminiscing about the process by which we arrived at them.

But he was plenty prejudiced in his own way.

Well! What can you say about a man for whom Swedes are not white enough?!

He would have like the skin bleaching fad in asia?