The meaning of tolerance in the Trump era

Voters explain fears about a Trump presidency
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Voters explain fears about a Trump presidency 02:07

Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: Those with family and friends who voted for Trump are not obligated to put their comfort before our self-worth
  • But as the Heather McGhee and Ellen DeGeneres incidents teach us, we should also avoid harboring hatred and hostility, writes Bailey

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)To understand the challenge facing those with friends and family members who voted for Donald Trump despite his open bigotry and misogyny, you need to watch a C-SPAN exchange between a black woman and a white man and read about a decision Ellen DeGeneres was forced to make this week. Both incidents illustrate why sometimes it makes sense to be tolerant of opposing views, and other times it is imperative to separate yourself from potentially soul-sapping relationships.

First, the C-Span video. A white man called into the network's "Washington Journal," which featured Heather McGhee, president of Demos, a liberal think tank. He confessed that he was prejudiced against black people because of images he had seen in the news but wanted to be a better American.
Issac Bailey
"What can I do to change?" asked Gary Civitello, a 58-year-old disabled Navy veteran from North Carolina.
McGhee's gracious, empathetic response is the reason at least 8 million people have watched the video and why millions more probably will. She didn't label him racist and demand he go away. Instead, McGhee befriended him, becoming a sort of guide, helping him to get a more rounded view of black people.
McGhee's story is the kind we love, much like the photo of a white police officer holding a distraught young black man caught in the middle of protests in Ferguson. Such stories have the power to touch those who didn't believe they could be touched or needed to re-examine what was in their heads and heart.
But the Ellen DeGeneres story is equally important.
She had to disinvite a guest, singer Kim Burrell, whom she planned to have on her show. Burrell was to perform a song from the upcoming movie "Hidden Figures" with Pharrell Williams. That was until a video surfaced of Burrell making disparaging statements about gay people.
"You, as a man, you open your mouth and take a man's penis in your face. You are perverted," Burrell said on camera during a sermon in a church. "You are a woman and will shake your face in another woman's breast. You are perverted."
Burrell believes homosexual activity is a sin against God -- to not spread that truth would be a violation of a deeply held principle and be harmful to gays and lesbians because they need to be made aware of their sins to repent.
And that's why Burrell didn't issue a full apology or retraction, even knowing DeGeneres is a lesbian and one of the country's most visible, maybe most important, pioneering gay rights activists.
DeGeneres had a few options. She could have allowed Burrell to perform as scheduled. She could have allowed her to come on the show and explain her comments. Or she could have disinvited her. In a world in which people prioritize comfort over justice, DeGeneres would have chosen either of the first two options. Instead, she chose the third.
In a tweet announcing her decision, DeGeneres didn't explain her reasoning. I suspect, though, she understood she was under no obligation to "tolerate" someone who questions her core worth, even if that person does so because of a religious belief.
Unlike Burrell's, Civitello's story was compelling because he sincerely asked for a way to change, which is why McGhee's response was pitch perfect. Burrell believes it's DeGeneres who needs to change, which is why DeGeneres' was pitch perfect as well. She has no obligation to spread a message that could further harm an already-vulnerable minority.
In short, Burrell can have her beliefs, but DeGeneres doesn't need to cosign on them. Similarly, non-Trump voters do not have to embrace what we believe is a betrayal by friends, and even family members, when they didn't declare that open bigotry in a presidential candidate was a deal breaker. There aren't enough viral videos and photos in the world to obscure that truth.
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But it also doesn't mean we must embrace hatred, become hostile or hope for the worst for Trump. We can still want to see the economy continue to improve in the Trump era, still want the concerns of the forgotten to finally be heard and still want the best for the country and our Trump-supporting friends and family members.
We can still break bread with them and laugh with them and cry with them. Disagreement doesn't mean a bridge too far. But we will not prioritize their comfort over our self-worth or a relationship with them over our basic rights.
Trump's bigotry wasn't a deal breaker for them, but it was for us.