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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Intolerance can never be up for debate

Donald Trump is a man of famously definite opinions. Whether it be about Mexicans, Muslims or Mueller, he knows what he thinks and isn’t shy about sharing.

So it was telling, one year ago this weekend, when he refused to take a stand.

Meaning, of course, Charlottesville and the white supremacist rally that shocked that town and the wide world beyond. Bad enough a motley mob of Tiki torch-bearing bigots marched under Confederate flags. But then a car plowed through a crowd of counterprotesters, and Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old waitress and paralegal, was killed.

In the moment of airless shock that came after, we did what Americans instinctively do at such times: turned to the president to steel our resolve, speak our overflowing hearts, help us make sense of a senseless thing. That’s what Obama would have done, what Clinton or the Bushes would have done. But this time, the president was Donald Trump, and he did something else.

First, he pinned blame on “many sides.” Two days later, with all the sincerity of a bad boy forced to apologize for tormenting his sister, he read prepared remarks acknowledging that white supremacy is wrong. The next day, he reversed his reversal, saying of the white supremacists and those who came to oppose them, that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

It was an act of moral equivocation that will forever soil his presidency and it left many observers righteously outraged. But when it comes to moral equivocation, Trump is hardly alone.

No, we’ve seen it with reporters who obscure hard truth with soft euphemisms, turning white supremacists into “the alt-right,” and racism into mere “racial insensitivity.” We saw it when Twitter awarded its coveted blue check mark – something appended to the accounts of journalists, celebrities and public figures to assure followers that they are authentic – to a handful of white supremacists. We saw it when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is Jewish, said his company would not close its platform to Holocaust deniers.

If Trump is motivated by sympathy for supremacists, people like Zuckerberg seem to act from something more insidious and complex: a kind of misguided open-mindedness, an extreme insistence on hearing “all sides” – even when there is only one.

They turn intolerance into a sterile intellectual exercise, the fears and experiences of its victims reduced to irrelevant footnotes. We debate the meaning of “alt-right,” debate whether Twitter should give David Duke’s account the same credibility it gives Jim Acosta’s, debate whether Holocaust deniers should be on Facebook and never seem to get that in the very act of making hatred a “debate,” we legitimize it, give it a seat at the table.

As a man who tweets as “Julius Goat” observed on Twitter a few days back, “While you are debating, your opponent is merely ‘using’ debate. The fact that you are engaging means he’s already succeeded.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy famously eulogized his brother Robert as a decent man who “saw wrong and tried to right it.” The same might be said of Heather Heyer. It would be good if more decent people emulated her simple conviction.

That doesn’t mean one needs to be closed-minded to dissenting opinions. But one does need to recognize that intolerance is not – can never be – up for debate. Invite intolerance to the table, and you’d better be prepared to lose the table. So none of us gets to opt out of this struggle. There are no conscientious objectors here.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, FL 33172. Readers may write to him via email at

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