Monday, January 24, 2005

The Intolerance of Tolerance by Gregory Koukl 

Probably no concept has more currency in our politically correct culture than the notion of tolerance. Unfortunately, one of America's noblest virtues has been so distorted it's become a vice.

There is a modern myth that holds that true tolerance consists of neutrality. It is one of the most entrenched assumptions of a society committed to relativism.

The tolerant person occupies neutral ground, a place of complete impartiality where each person is permitted to decide for himself. No judgments allowed. No "forcing" personal views. Each takes a neutral posture towards another's convictions.

This approach is very popular with post-modernists, that breed of radical skeptics whose ideas command unwarranted respect in the university today. Their rallying cry, "There is no truth," is often followed by an appeal for tolerance.

For all their confident bluster, the relativists' appeal actually asserts two truths, one rational and one moral. The first is the "truth" that there is no truth. The second is the moral truth that one ought to tolerate other people's viewpoints. Their stand, contradictory on at least two counts, serves as a warning that the modern notion of tolerance is seriously misguided.

Three Elements of Tolerance

Many people are confused about what tolerance is. According to Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, the word tolerate means to allow or to permit, to recognize and respect others' beliefs and practices without sharing them, to bear or put up with someone or something not necessarily liked.

Tolerance, then, involves three elements: (1) permitting or allowing (2) a conduct or point of view one disagrees with (3) while respecting the person in the process.

Notice that we can't tolerate someone unless we disagree with him. This is critical. We don't "tolerate" people who share our views. They're on our side. There's nothing to put up with. Tolerance is reserved for those we think are wrong.

This essential element of tolerance--disagreement--has been completely lost in the modern distortion of the concept. Nowadays, if you think someone is wrong, you're called intolerant.

This presents a curious problem. One must first think another is wrong in order to exercise tolerance toward him, yet doing so brings the accusation of intolerance. It's a "Catch-22." According to this approach, true tolerance is impossible.

Three Faces of Tolerance

Adding to the confusion is the fact that tolerance could apply to different things--persons, behaviors, or ideas--and the rules are different for each.

Tolerance of persons, what might be called "civility," can be equated with the word "respect." This is the classical definition of tolerance: the freedom to express one's ideas without fear of reprisal.

We respect those who hold different beliefs than our own by treating them courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. We may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we still show respect for the persons in spite of the differences.

Note that respect is accorded to the person, here. Whether his behavior should be tolerated is an entirely different issue. This is the second sense of tolerance, the liberty to act, called tolerance of behavior. Our laws demonstrate that a man may believe what he likes--and he usually has the liberty to express those beliefs--but he may not behave as he likes. Some behavior is immoral or a threat to the common good. Rather than being tolerated, it is restricted by law. In Lincoln's words: There is no right to do wrong.

Tolerance of persons must also be distinguished from tolerance of ideas. Tolerance of persons requires that each person's views get a courteous hearing, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or truth. The view that no person's ideas are any better or truer than another's is irrational and absurd. To argue that some views are false, immoral, or just plain silly does not violate any meaningful standard of tolerance.

These three categories are frequently conflated by muddled thinkers. If one rejects another's ideas or behavior, he's automatically accused of rejecting the person and being disrespectful. To say I'm intolerant of the person because I disagree with his ideas is confused. On this view of tolerance, no idea or behavior can be opposed, regardless of how graciously, without inviting the charge of incivility.

Historically, our culture has emphasized tolerance of all persons, but never tolerance of all behavior. This is a critical distinction because, in the current rhetoric of relativism, the concept of tolerance is most frequently advocated for behavior: premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, use of pornography, etc. People ought to be able to behave the way they want within broad moral limits, the argument goes.

Ironically, though, there is little tolerance for the expression of contrary ideas on issues of morality and religion. If one advocates a differing view, he is soundly censured. The tolerance issue has thus gone topsy-turvy: tolerate most behavior, but don't tolerate opposing beliefs about those behaviors. Contrary moral opinions are labeled as "imposing your view on others."

Instead of hearing, "I respect your view," those who differ in politically incorrect ways are told they are bigoted, narrow-minded, and intolerant.

A case in point was an attack made in my community paper on Christians who were uncomfortable with the social pressure to approve of homosexuality. I wrote the following letter to the editor to show how the modern notion of tolerance had been twisted into a vice instead of a virtue:

Dear Editor:

I am consistently amazed to see how intolerant South Bay residents are to moral views other than their own. Last week's letters about homosexuality were cases in point. One writer even suggested that your publication censor alternate opinions!

This narrow-mindedness and self-righteous attitude about sexual ethics is hypocritical. They challenge what they view as hate (it used to be called morality) with caustic and vitriolic attacks. They condemn censure by asking for censorship (there's a difference). They accuse others of intolerance and bigotry, then berate those same people for taking a view contrary to their own.

Why is someone attacked so forcibly simply for affirming moral guidelines about sex that have held us in good stead for thousands of years?

Not only that, the objections are self-defeating. The writers imply that everyone should be allowed to do and believe what they want and that no one should be permitted to force their viewpoint on others. But that is their viewpoint, which they immediately attempt to force on your readers in an abusive way. Those with opposing beliefs were referred to in print as bigots, lacking courage, disrespectful, ignorant, abominable, fearful, indecent, on par with the KKK, and--can you believe it--intolerant.

Why don't we abandon all of this nonsense about tolerance and open-mindedness? It's misleading because each side has a point of view it thinks is correct. The real issue is about what kind of morality our society should encourage and whether that morality is based on facts and sound reasoning or empty rhetoric.

Intellectual Cowardice

Most of what passes for tolerance today is not tolerance at all, but rather intellectual cowardice. Those who hide behind the myth of neutrality are often afraid of intelligent engagement. Unwilling to be challenged by alternate points of view, they don't engage contrary opinions or even consider them. It's easier to hurl an insult--"you intolerant bigot"--than to confront the idea and either refute it or be changed by it. "Tolerance" has become intolerance.

The classical rule of tolerance is this: Tolerate persons in all circumstances, by according them respect and courtesy even when their ideas are false or silly. Tolerate (i.e., allow) behavior that is moral and consistent with the common good. Finally, tolerate (i.e., embrace and believe) ideas that are sound. This is still a good guideline.

This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show "Stand to Reason," with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason. Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©2003 Gregory Koukl

UPDATE jan-27-2005

From Bob Kirk at Flowers in the Mud - a very nice text as well:

There are many competing currents in the sea of human thought. Sadly, that of the Western world appears to be an ocean growing far wider than deep. It is one that is Postmodern and evaporative in nature, where the supply of water is less than what is lost. Meaning has not yet been fully lost though it is in serious retreat. An image-driven society that argues emotion and preference while disdaining the endeavor for truth as confrontational and naturally offensive, is not long for retaining such an atiquated and frail concept. And yet while words and clarity are secondary to image and impact, we retain them out of necessity, since thought and communication are predicated on the word. Necessary evils.

After this and one further entry which will also deal with the question of same-sex marriage, I will have had my say. I'm not on a crusade nor am I consumed with this issue, though it is very important for a number of reasons. I do however recognize that the democratic government of this country, if acting democratically, will do as it will, right or wrong. As I said before, implied in democracy is the individuals right to voice, not necessarily the right to obtain. So I see this as an exercise of the very democracy that the government will act on, by voicing my opinion.

Again and again, I am amazed at North American public discourse and the adoption of argument that is ever-more shallow. The hallmarks of weak or non-existent arguments are generalization, oversimplification and misrepresentation. This statement is itself a generalization, but is only used here as being anecdotally descriptive - of what I have witnessed in my life. "Sound bites" and image manipulation for maximum emotional impact are primary in the toolbox of those who would be successful in swaying public opinion. Perhaps it is the natural fallout of such a postmodern society that has little time or patience or value for often lengthy, well-reasoned statements. Perhaps it's widespread laziness ignited and tweaked by the ease of obtaining information via media like the one you're now using that foster a "now" mentality. In both cases a conditioning of sorts makes it sufficient and even desirable to get our truth-fix from talking heads on CNN or short editorials in the Globe and Mail instead of investing the time to think, critique and evaluate. Cut the fluff, make a statement that has impact and move on!

What does any of this have to do with the proposed legal recognition of same-sex unions? It is becomming apparent to me that lost in all the rhetoric from both sides and clips of "activists" signs and shouting protesters is the issue itself. Issues that are periphery at best are confused into the issue and both sides wrangle over the case made or not made by these things instead of debating the issue and as individuals voicing their opinions and letting them stand or fall on their own merit. Lost in the exchange is truly whether the proposed action is right or wrong.

"Buzzwords" of irrelevancy fly furiously back and forth and carry with them emotional baggage that is coincidentally or intentionally manufactured to produce an impact against the opposition. The chief among these it seems, is the word "tolerance", followed closely by others such as "education", "open (mindedness)", "liberation" etc. None of these are offensive words or suggest anything that is opposed to justness or goodness - and so they're all the more effective when hurled with larger or smaller portion of their real meanings left behind.

How many times has the charge of "intolerance" been levelled at those who oppose same-sex marriage, independent of what specifically their objection is? Tolerance plays well in such a debate because the word implies a kindness or openness that in turn imply peace, respect and co-existence. What's not noble about that? But what if the one being critical of anothers "intolerance" finds themself standing only knee-deep in the sea of meaning with their surroundings draining fast? What becomes of the criticism itself and the desired impact as hoped for by using the criticism?

The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that tolerance no longer whizzes by meaning just the acceptance of all people as individuals, but is now encompassing of people and their positions. Tolerance has become primarily a statement that reflects on the one criticized, of their opinions of the opinions of others. To be tolerant in this existentialist world naturally is becomming to mean the acceptance of not only people but primarily any-and-every persons opinion. While short of an explicit endorsement, to be tolerant of opinions that diverge and disagree is to assent to them as valid, viable and therefore indirectly as true. No longer is one tolerant when they merely recognize that others will disagree, but when they accept that the opinion of those with whom we disagree is not wrong. In this way, tolerance is actually rendered meaningless as a term and as an argumentative buzzword. If those who object to same-sex marriage have their opinion and person dismissed as being intolerant because it disagrees with the critics own, then the critic has logically just become intolerant in the identical order and magnitude for exactly the same thing. Hardly compelling as an argument.

Further, tolerance never actually means the complete or absolute tolerance of all, and so becomes disingenuous and arbitrary. Those who hurl the charge are never, in my experience, tolerant of absolutely everyone in society. Indeed they do not tolerate murderers or thieves or any law breaker any more than the people they call intolerant, do. They call the cops just the same. There always remain people and actions outside of the law or outside of our own acceptance envelope that we are intolerant of.
So what relevance at all does "tolerance" as a criticism have to the same-sex marriage debate, if those issuing the charge of intolerance are themselves not tolerant of all people or positions of all people? It is nothing but a buzzword meant to illicit an emotional impact, caricature its target as necessarily in the wrong, and win public opinion for the issue without even addressing it. The waves recede and we find ourselves not in an ocean any more, but in the mud, facing the issue.

Education is used similarly. It does not mean the teaching of all, but only that which we endorse. Liberation does not mean freeing from all, but only from those things we feel are "oppressing". Openness and open-mindedness does not mean fair and careful evaluation of all propositions, but only those that agree or lead to agreement with those who advocate said openness.

[end of Kirk´s text]

On Respect and Tolerance

Koukl said:

Tolerance of persons, what might be called "civility," can be equated with the word "respect."

Although Koukl explains further below that he means respect for the right to speak plus the right to debate with a minimum of civility, I think to equate respect to civility and vice-versa creates additional problems. Without civility, when two people who disagree confront each other, you have violence. But without respect, you do not necessarily have violence. If we understand that respect entails at least a partial agreement with or condoning of someone we disagree with, we fall into a contradiction. You will never respect someone who you believe is destroying what you consider moral and valid and true. But unless there is some amount of civility to have a debate or confrontation of views and values, there will be no debate, only violence. Which leads to Koukl´s continuing explanation of same:

This is the classical definition of tolerance: the freedom to express one's ideas without fear of reprisal.

We respect those who hold different beliefs than our own by treating them courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. We may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we still show respect for the persons in spite of the differences.

"We respect those who hold different beliefs than our own by treating them courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse."

Actually, this represents civility to me. You don´t respect the person, nor their views and values, you respect the right for a debate with at least a minimum of civility. Of course that does entail a certain respect for the other to exist and speak, otherwise you might as well take a gun and blow the brains out of anyone who disagrees with you.

"This is the classical definition of tolerance: the freedom to express one's ideas without fear of reprisal."

A state which only exists in fluffy politician speeches, and which humanity, except in some very occasional and small circles, has never yet experienced.

Thank you for your insightful commentary. I have made similar observations, albeit from a lexicographer's point of view on my own blog on this subject.
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