SpongeBob: Not Gay, But Too Tolerant

Making fun of pro-family conservative groups like Focus on Family is like shooting fish in a barrel, which is one reason why smug columnists and the Keith Olbermans of the world do it so well…and so often. The other reason is that these groups frequently over-reach with a stunning lack of awareness of how ridiculous some of their complaints sound, especially those accusing puppets and cartoon characters of engaging in homosexual relationships.

First it was Muppets Bert and Ernie on "Sesame Street", and lately the anti-gay paranoid police have been looking askance at Sponge Bob Squarepants, who has a close relationship with Patrick the Incredibly Dumb Starfish. Thank goodness these people weren’t around when Laurel and Hardy were sleeping in the same bed, Abbott and Costello were spending every waking hour together, and Jerry Lewis was forever jumping into Dean Martin’s arms on the old Colgate Comedy Hour. These were real live men, with real sex organs and everything, and somehow nobody thought that their close on-screen friendships were anything other than what they were, convenient set ups for comic situations. That there are adults of normal intelligence in 2005 who really think that an animated talking sponge and a pink starfish holding hands is insidious pro-gay propaganda points to a possible mental health crisis in America rather than a moral one.

It is a shame, therefore, that Focus on Family was the point-group for those who had problems with a recent music video distributed by the We Are Family Foundation. The video, released in November of last year, features the sexually suspect SpongeBob, Big Bird, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Arthur, Barney and many other cartoon characters, all singing the hit song, "We Are Family." It is billed as an effort to "promote tolerance and diversity to America’s children." According to the Foundation’s website, "the video, which demonstrates to children the importance of togetherness embodied in the word ‘family,’ will be distributed to 61,000 public and private elementary schools in the United States on March 11, 2005, in celebration of the proposed National We Are Family Day."

It all sounds very benign, and despite the dark suspicions of Focus on Family, the project is undoubtedly well-intentioned. But even a blind pig will find an acorn now and then, and when Focus on Family raised an alarm about the "Tolerance Pledge" promoted in the video, it found its acorn.

The pledge, which was originally written by the fine people at the Southern Poverty Law Center reads as follows:

Tolerance is a personal decision that comes from a belief that every person is a treasure. I believe that America’s diversity is its strength. I also recognize that ignorance, insensitivity and bigotry can turn that diversity into a source of prejudice and discrimination.

To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make America a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own.

Now what could be the matter with this sentiment? Certainly not what Focus on Family maintains, which is that telling children that they ought to respect someone’s "sexual identity" when that person happens to be gay threatens the fabric of America’s values. That part of the pledge is just good, solid ethics. No, the problem with the pledge is much more sweeping than that, and goes well beyond its specific provisions.

The problem with the pledge is that intolerance is one of the primary tools by which a culture defines and maintains its values. A culture that strives to encourage good conduct must determine what it believes is good and right, and refuse to tolerate conduct that is not good and right. And indeed, the very people who wrote this pledge and produced this video believe that as much as I do. They don’t think we should tolerate racism, or sexism, or corporate greed, or, it’s safe to assume judging from the track records of the people and groups involved with the project, pre-emptive war, gun ownership or prohibitions on abortion. And they are right not to tolerate these behaviors and beliefs, if they want to build a culture and a society with the values that these beliefs undermine.

But those who oppose abortion, gun control, pornography, drug use, crude television, or bi-lingual education, not to mention gay marriage or the elimination of capital punishment, also are right to be intolerant of the ideas and conduct they feel our society should reject. Intolerance is an invaluable tool…or perhaps weapon is a more accurate term. Culture wars are not new; they go on all the time, in all cultures, as people argue over how their particular society should do things. They should go on all the time, because we have a lot of decisions to make. Do we want to accept out of marriage child-bearing, or discourage it? Do we allow public drunkenness? Rudeness? Violence? Smoking? How do we feel about adultery and child abuse? What about lying?

There is no question that misused intolerance causes a great deal of harm and injustice in America. Yet it remains an essential means of enforcing societal values. The proper response to misapplied intolerance is education, reason and argument, not to ban intolerance altogether.

Rejecting intolerance leads to a value-free society. Nothing is bad, everything is OK. Then we refuse to make judgements about ideas and conduct, so there are no guidelines, and no controls. There is, in fact, no right and wrong. Universal tolerance is anathema to ethics. It represents the abdication of our obligation to agree as a culture about what conduct is healthy and what is destructive. It is profoundly misleading and dangerous to preach a message of tolerance of all conduct and beliefs. That, and not any message against anti-gay bias, is what is wrong with the video

It is admirable to teach children to respect people of different races, cultures and lifestyles, but irresponsible to tell them that making value judgements is inherently wrong. Making unfair, cruel or unjust value judgements is wrong, but reasonable people can disagree over what these are. How do we decide which judgements are wrong, and when intolerance is being abused? That’s where ethics comes in.

Children don’t need a tolerance pledge. Like all of us, they need to learn how to use intolerance responsibly.


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