Today on National Review Online, American Enterprise Institute education policy studies director Frederick Hess astutely observes the significance of a recent incident at a Maryland university in which a checkout person refused to ring up a young woman’s purchase because she was wearing a t-shirt declaring herself as pro-Israel.

Ironically, the incident resulted in a series of conciliatory gestures from the woman who was refused service, and the store made it a policy that employees could discreetly refuse to serve someone whom they found politically unacceptable, provided that they quietly found someone else to serve the person.

As Hess points out, this incident illustrates the contemptible contemporary process of turning tolerance on its head to ensure that certain favored groups get special treatment because they continuously complain about how downtrodden they are:


Exactly how “tolerance” devolved into coddling those who choose to take offense for the slightest of reasons is a question for another day (although decades of experience demonstrates that on-campus tolerance is more frequently understood as the right of “victims” to air grievances than of heterogeneous speakers to be heard). Another question is how and why we’ve allowed identity politics to constrict public spaces.

But the pressing problem with the way “tolerance” as touted by too many educators is that it rewards zealotry; while the zealots are understood to be beyond its soggy grasp, the rational and pragmatic are expected to do what is necessary to keep the peace.

The champions of “tolerance” have pitched it as a costless and all-embracing virtue, all the while dismissing or sidestepping concerns that it might dim critical faculties or undermine commitment to core American values. Indeed, the goings-on at the Maryland Food Collective suggest just how readily this doctrine can become tantamount to unilateral intellectual and moral disarmament.


Hess’s observation is important: today’s perversion of tolerance rewards zealotry. And as psychologists will tell you, when you reward something, you get more of it.

A return to the ideal of equal treatment is essential if this society is to forestall a decline into ever-greater barbarism.