Tag Archives: individual agency

Freedom, Part 1: “Tolerance” and “Diversity”

These two words, tolerance and diversity, don’t mean the same things now that they did when I was young. Back then, they dealt with concepts that could unite us. Now they seem to be used in ways that divide us.

This is a piece I have put off writing for a long time because some people won’t like what I say.  But unless we can talk about the different ways people see tolerance and diversity, the different ways we use those words will continue to keep us at odds with each other.

When I was young, tolerance meant we would accept the fact many people see norms of behavior, dress, morality, or decorum differently than we do. Tolerant people could interact without confrontation when someone disagreed about those norms.

These days, being tolerant seems to mean that we must be willing to embrace other peoples’ norms of behavior, morality, or decorum even when those may be foreign or offensive to us. On the other hand, if the norms and standards that our consciences have dictated for a lifetime differ with those of special identity groups, then we must put our beliefs aside.

Diverse” and “diversity” as seen in a 2000 edition of a dictionary.

Diversity used to mean we are all very different in our society, and that’s OK.

Now it seems to mean that some diverse people are more equal than others. I must accept their cultural norms and beliefs, but my beliefs cannot be tolerated, and if I insist on holding onto them, I must be punished.

There are a variety of social issues or causes in which this double standard may be seen. To pick one: If my beliefs are not acceptable to LGBTQ people, I may be labeled “homophobic.”

Homophobia is a made-up word that suggests someone hates or fears those who classify themselves as LGBTQ. I neither hate nor fear people who live a homosexual lifestyle. There’s no reason I could not work with them on an equal footing. I hope they have all the happiness and success in their lives that they desire. It is only fair that they enjoy all the same civil rights I do, and I fully support legislation guaranteeing them those rights.

But there are some philosophical points on which I disagree with them based on my faith. I believe that the inherent individual right to freedom of thought entitles me to my own beliefs, but I will not try to dictate how others must live.

As a matter of faith, I believe that every human is an eternal being having a mortal experience. Inside every one of us is an eternal spirit child of God that existed with Him before we were born here and will go on existing after our mortal bodies die. I believe our eternal spirits have certain characteristics, including gender, that have always been part of us and will go on being part of us when we leave this life. What we do here will not change that characteristic. (For more on this, see “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/the-family-a-proclamation-to-the-world/the-family-a-proclamation-to-the-world?lang=eng.)

Some who live as a different gender than they were born will say it is not a matter of their choice, but they were born in a body that does not match who they really are. I cannot believe that. Neither do I believe in common gender stereotypes. We are all mixtures of many physical and personality traits, and no one mix of these traits can define either male or female. No one can truly say, “I am female (or male) because . . . .” I believe that our eternal spirits are what they are and that God does not place some of them in the wrong bodies by mistake.

But what I may believe has no power to govern others. Many may disagree with me, and it is not my right or purpose in life to make them conform to my beliefs. That would be tyrannical. Faith should never be an excuse for tyranny. I believe that one of the first laws of heaven, in God’s plan for His children, is that we each will have our own individual agency. Each of His children has the responsibility to choose how we shape our lives and behavior on this earth, and ultimately each of us will be answerable to Him for our choices.

Others will, I hope, respect my agency just as I respect theirs.

It does not matter how just or right you think your cause to be, whether it is racial or gender equality, environmentalism, economic parity, or something else; trying to force others to adopt the beliefs and behaviors you prefer is a violation of their civil rights on earth and their agency in eternity. God offers all of us choices, but never compels us to do as He says.

Too often in our society, people who identify themselves with one movement or cause or social group try to coerce others into accepting their beliefs and behaviors by labeling and shaming, by humiliating or ostracizing them, or by compulsion through legislation. This is wrong. If we cannot persuade people to our way of thinking or behaving by reasoning with them, we have no right to punish them for having different views.

Here’s a concrete example that may be controversial for some. Suing a wedding photographer or cakemaker whose personal religious beliefs make him or her uncomfortable serving an LGBTQ wedding doesn’t seem to be about achieving equality, especially where comparable services are available from someone else. It seems to be about forcing one’s values on someone else in violation of that individual’s conscience.

Many of the problems of divisiveness in our world today could be solved if we could go back to those earlier definitions of tolerance and diversity. We can recognize that other people who do not share our backgrounds and experiences will see many things differently than we do, but we can nevertheless commit ourselves to interacting and working with them in a spirit of peace and cooperation.