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Law, Tolerance and Society

In Defense of Intolerance

Matthew Pianalto isn’t going to take it any more.

Thanks to extremists like Scott Roeder, the anti-abortionist who murdered Dr George Tiller, and James von Brunn, the white supremacist who opened fire in the U.S. Holocaust Museum, as well as the various groups around the world who resort to terror bombings, we are likely to see renewed and continuing discussions about the importance of tolerance. “Can’t we all just get along?” Indeed, intolerance gets a bad rap because the most salient examples of intolerance are these same hate-mongering fanatics. This is unfortunate, for while tolerance is often necessary for us to all get along and better understand each other, no one who defends tolerance could consistently hold that it can be unlimited. Some things are truly intolerable: murder, rape, child abuse. The problem is where to draw the line when we move beyond such evidently intolerable things. Disagreements about which acts are intolerable give rise to some of our deepest moral and political conflicts.

There is, however, a different tack we can take. This concerns what we may do in response to what we find intolerable. Since we don’t live in a state of anarchy, this is often a political question: we’ve put deterrence and punishment for many intolerable acts into the hands of government because the costs of vigilantism are too high. However, there are moral issues that go beyond the political, or which are left unresolved by the state. We can be put in an uncomfortable position if we happen to think that some legally-permitted practice or activity is deeply immoral. Just because something’s legal doesn’t imply that it’s moral – consider lying while not under any formal oath, or in the eyes of some, and more contentiously, abortion. What are we supposed to think, or do, about those engaging in what we believe are legal but immoral activities?

The liberal answer, broadly speaking, is that we must sometimes tolerate things we find deeply wrong. But the imperative that we must tolerate what we find intolerable seems a self-contradictory demand. This is why Bernard Williams wondered whether tolerance is an ‘impossible virtue’.

In an attempt to resolve this paradox some draw a distinction between tolerance and toleration, as does Williams. They suggest that tolerance refers to a particular attitude of restraint toward beliefs or practices which we find disagreeable, while toleration only requires acting with restraint, even if our attitude is that we would like to beat up the person whose behavior we find objectionable. Some, like Williams, say that we can demand that people act with toleration without demanding they actually cultivate a tolerant, accomodating attitude. Some will further say that we can, to an extent, force or pressure people to behave with toleration – for example, by setting up laws against certain kinds of interference – without thereby forcing anyone to actually change her underlying intolerant attitudes. We thus give people an incentive not to act violently as they attempt to impose their convictions upon others who do not share them.

Some, however, respond that toleration imposed by external force is not really toleration at all. This is because deciding not to act against another person out of fear of punishment is simply to value something else – not being punished – more than acting in accordance with one’s deep convictions and trying to stop the person they believe is behaving badly. In the face of the threat of force many people prefer freedom; and yet this does not mean that they have abandoned, or even can abandon, their moral convictions that others are behaving intolerably. This is the source of complaint for many conservatives. They say that liberal pleas for tolerance are simply a covert way of arguing that people with more restrictive or demanding moral beliefs should learn to be more liberal, open, and permissive. Some extremists, like Scott Roeder and James von Brunn, can’t, or won’t, accept such compromising demands. Instead, they bite the bullet, decide to forego their own freedom, and open fire. They might well judge that others who share their beliefs and yet fail to take action are simply cowards who compromise their integrity.

Tolerance and Understanding

No one, I think, will deny that it would be awful to tolerate the truly intolerable. However, those defending toleration will point out that it’s difficult to know when we are in possession of the full relevant truth and nothing but. This doesn’t require one to be a moral skeptic. Rather, one only need see that only a fool could believe he’s right all the time and has no need to give consideration to other views. On deeply contentious moral issues, this truism seems to provide a presumption in favor of caution and restraint. I might have the right to risk my own life for the sake of my idea, but it is much more difficult to justify risking someone else’s life on the same grounds.

Tolerance plays an important role in the quest for truth generally. The tolerant person – while disagreeing, perhaps quite deeply, with the other’s views – has not abandoned the possibility of dialogue with the other side. Sir Karl Popper argued that a spirit of tolerance is essential to the search for truth. By tolerating those who have differing beliefs and ideas, and who pursue different practices than our own, we allow a diverging in the search for truth – say, about what ways of believing and living can be most effective, meaningful and fulfilling. We leave open the pathways of dialogue. To tolerate difference, particularly in moral matters, is not simply to leave the other side alone or to ignore what they’re doing. Indeed, if we do simply leave each other alone, we lose the possibility of learning from each other. We also abandon the moral responsibility we have to discern whether what we’re currently tolerating has crossed or threatens to cross the line into the irredeemably intolerable. We can’t responsibly tolerate without any understanding of what we are tolerating, yet this understanding also can’t be one-sided, since our way of looking at the other side may turn out to be distorted or misinformed. Responsible toleration requires dialogue. The difficult thing to admit is that open dialogue does not always culminate in a happy ending. What we conditionally tolerated on the grounds of our possible error may turn out, in honest and better-informed judgment, to be as intolerable as we initially feared. I have seen students express strong negative views about the practice of female circumcision, then back off these strong claims during discussions of relativism and urgings of cultural understanding. Later, they see that the justifications offered in defense of the tradition are typically unreflective, self-serving (slavery was a tradition, too), or simply insensitive to dissenting voices from within those cultures. They then return to their conviction that the practice is intolerable.

Not Tolerating The Intolerable

So if a practice really is intolerable, why aren’t you doing something about it? There are lines to be drawn concerning what is to be done about various morally intolerable practices. It’s not quite right to suggest that the lines are crystal clear, as moral wrongs can vary in severity and in their (mistaken) justifications. However, we can identify some fairly distinct ways of doing something about those which we find intolerable. Furthermore, a morally significant line can be drawn between violent and non-violent means of responding.

Perhaps the weakest form of action against the intolerable is verbal condemnation. ‘Weakest’ here is descriptive rather than a value judgement; in many cases, this weakest form of intolerance is precisely what’s most appropriate. It is the most common kind of intolerance practiced by parents toward children, or by us towards people we want to stay in relationship with. One interesting thing about verbal condemnation is that it communicates that from our point of view there is nothing further to discuss about the morality of the practice being condemned. We are no longer open to dialogue; our position is non-negotiable. There may be many things about which we can be tolerant, but this (whatever it might be) is not one of those things.

Another kind of action against the intolerable is what we could call ‘non-violent interference’. Civil disobedience, as practiced by Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., is an example of non-violent interference directed at intolerable government policies. Other peaceful protests are organized by private groups and directed at private organizations. These sorts of activities are a way of people standing up for their convictions. Countries that allow peaceful protest recognize the importance of allowing those with deep convictions to display their views in public, perhaps as a way of allaying the effects of a forced toleration which would otherwise drive moral dissenters into their homes to brood while the wounds of alienation fester. Indeed, governments that do not permit such public moral protest may be enforcing a policy that is intolerable, and thus would themselves be justifiable targets of civil disobedience. In democratic countries, the formation of political groups to pressure legislation is another route for non-violent interference.

Some have claimed that the practice of ‘non-violent intolerance’ is really just another form of violence – one directed at the mind rather than the body. (The point would surely also apply to verbal condemnation.) They complain that allegedly non-violent protest can have just as damaging an effect on those protested against as physical violence. For example, while many pro-life protesters never touch an abortion doctor or a woman seeking an abortion, many of the other practices – such as posting pictures of these doctors and their clients on the internet, haranguing them at clinic entrances, and so on – could also be deeply traumatic to those involved.

However, the complaint that non-violence is its own kind of violence misses the point. Such practices, whether we find them distasteful or not (and I find many of them to be so, if not worse), are meant to be disturbing – otherwise they wouldn’t be any kind of interference. However, it is legitimate to ask how much of this sort of interference a government should allow, to what extent, and how severe the penalties should be for crossing the lines. These are important questions, especially because of legitimate worries that non-violent protests often risk turning violent when feelings are hostile. The general view that an important line has been crossed when interference becomes physically violent, shows that there is a perceived difference between those things that must be handled with non-violent intolerance, and those few things which warrant violent intolerance. In practice, we recognize a difference between saying to someone, “I think you’re a disgusting, misguided person for acting that way” and punching them in the face. So just as we should have reasons justifying our view that a practice is intolerable, we also must have reasons for holding that a particular degree of intolerant response is justified. For instance, with vandalism, we enter the physically-violent side of intolerant interference. The most extreme acts of vandalism, for example, arson, or bombing unoccupied buildings, will typically be described as terrorism, because they typically attempt not only to thwart activity, but also to intimidate. Yet whatever effectiveness various forms of vandalism might possess, their violent nature suggests that the standard for their justification must be much higher than for non-violent methods of intolerance, for the morality of a cause does not itself justify physical violence.

Violent Intolerance

Lastly then, we have to consider physical violence directed at those considered to be engaging in intolerable practices. This will always be the most difficult kind of interference to justify, and in fact I believe that it is rarely justifiable, if ever. (Note that I am focusing on ways of registering one’s intolerance, not what may be done in direct self-defense, for example.)

Recall that I said I might have the right to risk my own life for the sake of an idea, but that it’s much more difficult to justify risking someone else’s life on the same grounds. Actually, this statement is too weak. Rather, I suspect it is impossible to justify risking someone else’s life for the sake of one’s own convictions. (I am not at present particularly concerned about the implications of this claim at the level of government action. I am instead concerned about how individuals and private groups may register their intolerance against other individuals or private groups whose behaviour they find intolerable. However, I think that what I have to say can be equally applied to the question of how we may register our intolerance of governmental practices and institutions, too.)

But what exactly is the argument against violent interference at the personal level? I have already suggested that the punishment of violence by law does not necessarily provide a moral reason for rejecting such violence. To see why we cannot tolerate violent interference, I think we instead have to return to the fact of human fallibility. A sincere acknowledgment of that fact requires foremost of an individual a certain level of humility. By humility, I don’t mean ‘self-denigration’, and I would regard Aristotle’s concept of ‘proper pride’ as compatible with the humility I have in mind. It simply involves not losing grip on the basic thought that, after all, “I might be wrong.”

The understanding that “I might be wrong” need not be a block against maintaining genuine convictions. To some it might seem arrogant for a person to harbor convictions about contentious moral matters. However, like William James, I’d argue that we have a right to risk certain beliefs; and as he says, moral beliefs fall into the class of beliefs for which we may not be able to wait for all the evidence to come in before adopting a firm position. Thus, we have a right to refuse the suggestion that we must be tolerant in all areas of disagreement. Nevertheless, the truth that I might be wrong should place crucial restrictions on my actions. It does not mean I should restrain myself from acting on my convictions completely; but it does mean I must ask what right I have to, for example, risk someone else’s life on the chance that I’m not mistaken – especially when that person has not consented to the risk. I have no such right at all; and the history of self-righteous bloodshed in the service of convictions we now find ridiculous should, I think, fill us with enough humility to appreciate such a conscientious constraint on our intolerance. On the other hand, the intolerant person who is pumped full of self-righteous pride has thereby proven himself to be a potentially dangerous fool. Any such person thereby becomes intolerable – and should be intolerable even to those who share that person’s basic convictions.

The Limits of Intolerance

Because tolerance keeps lines of dialogue open, it is often to be preferred to intolerance, and should be a route we take very seriously on controversial issues. But when extolling the virtue of tolerance, it is remiss to have little to say about what is intolerable, and what we may do in response to it. I have put forward this defense of intolerance because it seems that many fail to see (or admit) that the permissable bounds of intolerance might not be what is explicitly forbidden by law. We may worry that intolerance culminates in physical violence, and vivid cases of violent intolerance reinforce this worry. I hope I have shown that intolerance does not itself mean violent intolerance, as well as provided a reminder that intolerance should not be treated as taboo. We become who are by setting certain limits and having certain expectations, and we cannot, as individuals, be asked to tolerate just anything that challenges those limits and frustrates those expectations. At the same time, our justified intolerance does not justify an any-possible-means response.

In conjunction with this final point, justified intolerance does not justify hateful rhetoric, which should be distinguished from mere verbal condemnation. Such rhetoric attempts to blur the lines between non-violence and violence, subtly or not-so-subtly encouraging others to get their hands dirty, so that the person espousing the rhetoric can plead innocence while enjoying the fruits of intolerance at its worst. This is to say nothing of the fact that many forms of intolerance lack justification, and instead function through a blinding hatred. Those who fuel the minds of people like Roeder and von Brunn with demonizing language, and turn a glad eye to the resulting violence, or who hypocritically condemn it without actually regretting it, fall on the wrong side of intolerance.

© Matthew Pianalto 2010

Matthew Pianalto is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Eastern Kentucky University.

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