Dina's awesome post on Michael Kirby brought up the very condescending nature of tolerance. As a high profile gay man, he pointed out that he has no desire for people to tolerate him, he wants them to accept him. Seems pretty reasonable to me, and it also brought to mind the fact that there are things I don't wish to tolerate. Tolerance is something best left to describe handling pain.
I agree that acceptance is where we all need to be with homosexuality. But the necessary step on the way is understanding. For mine, the key point about homosexuality is that it is part of who someone is, it isn't an abomination, and it isn't a choice. I can see why some people might feel that the idea is repugnant. I think the idea of eating mushrooms is repugnant. But that doesn't matter, you don't have to do it yourself (and it's much easier to avoid than eating mushrooms, I can assure you). Other people doing it isn't going to hurt you.
But I don't think all things different deserve acceptance. They do all deserve understanding. When something about a group of people induces a "that's just wrong" response, there are a number of things to consider.
Firstly, is it an integral, unavoidable part of who they are? Race, gender, sexuality and no doubt plenty of other things obviously are. Other things have ambiguous answers - paedophiles is one that comes to mind - clearly broken, but could conceivably be congenitally broken.
Second, am I in some way being required to participate?
Third, is the net negative effect substantial enough to warrant action? I'm thinking a borderline case here might be the Australian love of the swear word. Some people find it really offensive, and it disturbs them greatly. I'm not sure we should completely ignore that - after all most of us don't swear at relo's who really don't like it. But then how much damage is it actually doing?
The point of all this question answering, is that I think sometimes understanding can lead to intolerance, and justifiably so. A culture is not an unchangeable thing, it is reasonable to conclude that you personally don't like a culture. I really don't like the Japanese culture. But I find myself terribly reluctant to say that sort of thing for fear of being judged intolerant and racist. I don't believe anything much at all about Japanese people. Stereotypes come from people looking at a culture and making generalisations about the people who come from it. I don't vilify stereotypes, they are just the descriptive equivalent of statistics. They describe a population, but never a person. And just like statistics, they can be powerful, convenient or misleading. When deliberately abused, they are downright malevolent. Of course, that analogy would work better for the stereotype's image if our own culture didn't make so many decisions about individuals based on the statistics that describe the population they come from. The obsession the medical establishment has with a normal distribution and the damage that does to the field and its patients is a topic for another rant. However, just because we are inept at using them, it doesn't make them inherently bad.
We have to be very careful that we don't create a taboo about criticising culture, religion and other things which we have the power to change, simply because we are not part of them. Culture and religion are growing, changing things. I don't have to come from the Cape to know that the Aboriginal communities need to change the cultures in which child abuse has become endemic. Nor did I need to live in Northern Ireland to know that both sides needed to let go of the hate, because it simply wasn't working.
Of course, understanding is a pre-requisite to criticism. I was trying to come up with an example from Africa, where all sorts of atrocities are taking place, but I simply don't understand enough to be able to make anything resembling valid criticisms. This is why comparitive religion should be taught in schools. If you want to criticise religion A, you really should understand it first.
I don't have moral dilemmas about criticising a culture - a culture gets a "no" answer for question 1. The moral dilemmas I have are when there is a "yes" to question 1 and a "yes" to question 3. If paedophilia (or a subset of it) turns out to be a kind of congenital brokenness, what should we do? Clearly children need to be protected from harm, but I have a problem with vilifying someone for something they can't do anything about. It's a lose-lose. Logic dictates that the safety of the child takes priority, because all morals aside, it may help prevent more brokenness in the future.
Something which, with understanding, is unacceptable and changeable, should be criticised and discussed in an effort to make real change.
Something which, with understanding, is unacceptable and unchangeable is a real challenge. Tolerance is still not an option. Understanding is needed in buckets and a lot of deep thought about avoiding harm in ways that don't vilify those who have no choice.
On a positive note, there are a lot more things that with understanding, turn out to be homosexuality or mushrooms - nothing at all wrong with them as long as no-one's making it compulsory. Acceptance follows naturally from that. And if someone is making it compulsory, that's who needs to cop the flak, not the mushrooms.