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Against Tolerance

Peter J. King says you shouldn’t put up with it.

I frequently have trouble with words that other people use with what seems to be blithe understanding (friends tell me that the problem is that I think too much about words, but I find that not thinking doesn’t really seem to help). In the case of ‘tolerance’, though, I have no trouble at all – it’s a wishy-washy weasel, a mealy-mouthed mink of a word. I suppose I don’t want to claim that it has no decent place in the language at all. I’m not particularly worried, for example, about our tolerating bad dramatic or musical performances by friends, close relatives, or children, nor about our tolerating the short tempers of those under great stress, and so on. What concerns me is the notion of tolerance that is so often to be found floating in the nebulous rhetoric of morality, both public and private.

What is it that we mean, exactly, when we plead for tolerance? What, for example, is meant by ‘racial tolerance’? Do we mean that it should be understood that a person’s race is irrelevant to the way we judge her and to the way she should be treated? Well, so it is – but a recognition of that fact isn’t tolerance, it’s simply good sense. Or do we mean that, although the members of certain races are of course odorous, stupid, or morally deficient, we shouldn’t mention this – perhaps because it would be impolite or socially unacceptable? If that’s what’s meant by ‘tolerance’, and I suspect that for many people it is, then it should be recognised and condemned for what it is: dangerous and bigoted nonsense.

The main point underlying all this, I think, is that it doesn’t make sense to say that we tolerate something unless we think that it’s wrong in some way; that’s just what ‘tolerance’ means. “I tolerate x” means both that I judge x to be wrong and that I put up with x. Well, if we think something’s wrong, why should we put up with it? If we don’t think that it’s wrong, why do we need to talk about putting up with it? For example, I don’t happen to think that homosexuality is morally wrong – so there’s nothing there for me to tolerate. I happen to think that racism is morally wrong – and I’m damned if I’ll tolerate it. As George Saintsbury said somewhere or other (though he might not have agreed with my application of his aphorism): “Broadmindedness is the result of flattening highmindedness out.”

Of course, the refusal to tolerate what we think is wrong doesn’t entail anything very energetic in the way of making our views known, or even of acting upon them. For a start, we’re usually not in any position to prevent, or even to ameliorate, what we disapprove of – generally we have either no legal right or no power to do so. Most people are powerless to stop crime or to put an end to apartheid – unless one counts a refusal to buy South African sherry on political rather than aesthetic grounds (there’s a scene in Woody Allen’s Sleeper : “Have you ever taken a serious political stand on anything?” – “Yeah, sure; for 24 hours once I refused to eat grapes.”). The fact that people generally can’t do much against rape or murder or apartheid doesn’t mean that they tolerate those evils.

The making of a moral judgement doesn’t even entail the performance of any specific action that is available to us – perhaps not even the simple action of expressing it (though I think that this would, under normal circumstances, be the correct minimum response to evil). To think otherwise is a mistake which is often made, and which has helped to lead some philosophers to claim that judging that an action is morally wrong is necessarily to judge that the action shouldn’t be performed. They argue that it might be impertinent or presumptuous to make such an ‘ought judgement’. So it might be, if expressed in certain ways or in certain circumstances (though we may nevertheless be morally required to express it) – but I don’t see how merely thinking that someone ought not to do something could be impertinent.

There’s one area, however, which might seem to pose a problem for me: the question of free speech. Surely this is one serious moral role for the notion of tolerance that I must allow. Well, no – I don’t think that I have to do any such thing. The issue is complex and interesting, and I can’t do justice to it here, but I’ll sketch the position I want to hold. First, note the distinction between morally judging an action and morally judging a belief (or a statement ).1 If I judge an action to be morally wrong, then I judge that it offends against a moral code; if I judge that a belief or statement is morally wrong, then I judge that it is inconsistent with a moral code. (Sometimes, in fact, a belief or statement is said to be morally wrong when it is factually wrong but has moral consequences; what I have to say can easily be adapted to such cases.) Just as what is judged is different in each case, so should be our reactions. I’ll deal here with those cases in which our moral judgements demand the maximum relevant action from us; again, what I say can easily be extended to other cases. In the case of actions, my comments about tolerance stand – if we judge an action to be morally wrong, we are obliged to (try to) stop it. In the case of beliefs and statements, on the other hand, the obligation is not to stop but to change. Tolerance is still morally unacceptable, but intolerance must take a different form.

The notion of religious tolerance is more like what I want to call intolerance. When the members of one religion plead for tolerance towards other religions, they’re usually not making any concessions concerning their own beliefs. They’re saying: “We think that other religious beliefs are false, but we don’t think that merely holding false beliefs is cause for persecution.” Well, of course it isn’t. But not persecuting someone who makes a mistake is very different from declining to try and correct that mistake. Here, for once, the religious attitude provides an example to be followed; religious tolerance doesn’t usually preclude proselytising (though, less laudably, it often involves a ban on proselytising by those who are tolerated).

This is all closely connected with another commonly heard locution: “I disagree with you, but I respect your opinion.” What on earth does this mean? What is it to respect a false opinion, a belief in what is false? Of course I don’t mean to imply here that disagreeing with you entails despising you: I can think that your beliefs are false and still respect you (as a matter of fact ‘respect’ is another of those words I have problems with, but let’s leave that for now). Nor, naturally, do I mean to imply that disagreeing with you justifies me in any attempt to suppress your opinion. But however honest you are, however carefully you’ve thought about the matter at issue, however honourably you’ve conducted your argument, if I disagree with your opinion then I think that it’s wrong – that your belief is false. If I don’t think that it’s wrong then I don’t disagree with it. So long as we distinguish between opinions and the person who holds them, there should be no problem. Mind you, I suppose it would be difficult to respect someone if we disagreed with all, or even most, of her opinions. There’s surely some connection between the sum of what we believe and the sort of people we are. At any rate, respect doesn’t come into it.

There are problems of course, but they can all be dealt with fairly easily, I think. For example, the loopy M.P. who stands up and claims that 90% of Oxford’s inhabitants are Armenian immigrants can be ignored unless her audience are likely to take this as an excuse for attacking the one or two Armenians they can actually find. In itself, the statement is factually rather than morally wrong, but its context provides the moral element; if the M.P. proves immune to rational argument and to the evidence, then we might well be justified in attempting to stop her repeating her provocation. And if her speech does lead to Armenian suffering, then she should surely be prosecuted. She has done something wrong, not merely said something false. In a civilised society her action would not be tolerated; it shouldn’t be in our society, either.

Part of the worry many people feel about all this doubtless stems from the fact that tolerance is seen as the opposite of bigotry. Now I don’t know how you decide what is the opposite of a concept as complex and as abstract as that of bigotry; I think, though, that the opposite of most bigotry is bigotry in the opposite direction. The moral alternative to bigotry, however, is not tolerance, but rationality. Tolerance is simply bigotry on a leash – and no matter how strong the leash might seem, it could always snap at any moment.

1 I shall make a rather conservative distinction here; I should like sometime to argue for a much more radical version.

© P.J. King 1994

Peter J. King is a lecturer at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.

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