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The recent kerfuffle over Lynette Gay and the honorary degree that the University of Utah plans to award her is a case study in the kind of intolerant tolerance that seems to be driving and, in my view destroying, meaningful public dialogue and serious debate on the important issues of our day. Crying intolerance and spewing accusations of hate have become the new go-to strategy for shutting down debate or discrediting those who disagree with you.
Gay is an extraordinary individual with a life filled with service the kind of person any university would love to commend with an honorary degree. Now she finds herself in a roiling debate while being bullied into resigning her position from one of the many boards on which she serves.
The portion of Gay's biography that has caused the wild reaction and protest from two outside groups and some at the University of Utah is her association with the World Congress of Families. The organization I now lead, Sutherland Institute, was the host and sponsor of the World Congress of Families IX event, held in Salt Lake City last year. The group has a long history of strengthening families and supporting at-risk children. There is a mountain of evidence attesting to the good work it has done.
I do not wish to engage in a series of tit-for-tat, claim-and-counterclaim arguments which have become standard for TV and media. None of us should be interested in shouting matches, talking-point tirades or hyperbolic accusations. Rather, I wish to speak to the principles that undergird an open society and the processes that should guide our public discourse.
The leading voice against Gay comes from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). It would be easy for me to lay out a case against SPLC, identify past members of SPLC who have said or done less than honorable things, or dispute SPLC accusations which were proven flawed. Such an approach, while temporarily satisfying to some, would leave us a long way from the type of open-mindedness and dialogue we are capable of creating.
The real question is, where there are disagreements, who gets to decide who can be vilified, who is tolerant, who is filled with hate and who is not? One group declaring another group to be evil simply does not make it so. Organizations that cower before such clamor and character assassination are contributing to a less-than-tolerant environment on campus and in the public square.
The selection of individuals to be recipients of honorary degrees is hardly a canonization and it shouldn't be. Business success, philanthropic work, and service to community are all compelling reasons to bestow such degrees none has to be the next Mother Teresa. Turning this process into a purity test for political correctness is neither wise nor prudent. With this precedent, some will undoubtedly argue that a potential honoree should be disqualified for having been an Eagle Scout as a youth or that a graduate of a university like the U. of U. should be rejected because of possible insensitivities to Native Americans. While seemingly absurd, such examples flow from the demonization of those with whom we might disagree.
Whipping students into a frenzy of indignation to the point that they would turn their backs on an honored son or daughter of the University is to teach them to turn their backs on the most important lessons from their university experience openness to learning from and discussing a wide variety of thoughts and ideas. (Yes, students have every right to protest. But just because they can, doesn't mean they should that is part of what they should have learned during their college years.)
We believe that the LGBT community deserves respect and should be heard. The role of families, the challenges of a complex society and the needs of children are also important. The events of this week didn't advance any of these causes but instead were an exercise in intolerant tolerance. The result, ultimately, is that we have besmirched a wonderful member of our community, the U., and numerous individuals and organizations who have a rightful claim to civic dialogue, elevated communication and respect.
If our teaching of tolerance is that we are to be tolerant only of those who agree with us and that we should disrespectfully treat and then dismissively turn our backs on everyone else we have taught by word and deed intolerant tolerance which really isn't tolerance at all.
Boyd Matheson is president of the Sutherland Institute.