Against Tolerance (in the Other Direction)

There is an ambivalence in the modern world about the idea of "tolerance."

On the one hand, tolerance is something that is championed as desirable and necessary. In a society suspicious of virtue and vice, being tolerant is perhaps the only moral label which is still widely seen as admirable. To be intolerant, meanwhile, is spoken of in grim tones once reserved for offences leading to scarlet A's or stake burnings. Almost all of the labels that result in social ostracism today - racism, sexism, homophobia - are different way of saying "intolerant."

However, there is also an increasing sense that this is an unhelpful approach. Controversies on university campuses result in chants of "we will not tolerate intolerance." There are live discussions about whether and what sort of political or social views should not be tolerated. Even for those that aren't conscious of those debates, this struggle with the framework of tolerance can be seen in the increasing polarization of modern society. There is much less interest in being inclusive in current political and social debates and much more interest in winning.

I would like to suggest that is because tolerance is a terrible category - just not in the ways we might think.

The idea of tolerance has always had flaws. In the first place, it lacks a foundation. "We must tolerate all views," we are told, but the natural question that arises is "Why?"

It cannot be because all views are equally correct - the whole idea of tolerance must apply to people we think are wrong or it isn't worth anything at all. More than that, tolerance requires a certain set of assumptions about human rights and social values that themselves have to be held dogmatically. Tolerance would tell me that I must respect the beliefs and choices of others, but that is itself both a belief and the demand for a choice.

Historically, the championing of tolerance stemmed from an era of humanistic optimism that seems increasingly difficult to maintain. Its greatest proponents tended to believe that, deep down, everyone thought and valued the same things. Whatever wrong beliefs were present, surely an open exchange of ideas and the direction of history would change them.

One of the hard lessons of the 20th century was that this simply wasn't the case. People really believed very different things about fundamental issues, things with profound social and political consequences. As tolerance failed to create an environment where they all came around to its proponents' ways of thinking, the alternatives - largely power and coercion - have become increasingly attractive.

So tolerance has significant issues. Yet with that said, I don't think we should abandon it for intolerance or social warfare. Instead, I point that out because we need something deeper. I am against tolerance in the other direction.

Tolerance isn't actually asking very much of us. "Put up with each other," it says. "Avoid interfering in one anothers' business." There are certainly situations where that is necessary - I tolerate my friends' foibles or my neighbor's lawn care choices. It was never really sufficient, though, in the realm of ideas and beliefs.

This is because beliefs always encroach on others. One person believes sex should be engaged in freely and frequently with a variety of partners. Another believes it belongs in a life-long marital commitment. Both people, by the essential nature of those convictions, think the other person is wrong. More than that, both people have a sort of moral obligation to try to change the other's behavior. After all, the one thinks it is harmful to be a repressed prude and the other things it is destructive to be a wanton libertine. To fail to seek to change the other person is actually a failure to care about them as a human being.

With that said, there is one species of tolerance that does apply to those debates. Tolerance is a wonderful political virtue, saying that I ought not seek to legally force the other party around to my way of thinking. Yet political tolerance is different than moral tolerance, and it is perhaps our confusion of the two that had lead us to this place. I do not think I should legally punish someone for being pigheaded or mean-spirited. That does not, however, mean I don't find such behavior morally intolerable.

Instead of tolerance as a personal virtue, what I want to suggest is that there are three deeper virtues which are necessary in our modern world.

The first is humility. One of the truths underlying calls for tolerance is the recognition that no person is omniscient. I don't know everything, even though I might feel like I do. This kind of humility is perhaps most important when it comes to our most deeply held beliefs.

While we would all pay the idea lip service, very few of us actually believe that we can be wrong. Oh, sure, we might recognize there are details in our ways of thinking that can be quibbled with. Yet when it comes to the big issues, we tend to struggle to really think there are other rational views. When we take our root political assumptions or our beliefs in the authority of God or Science or our basic sense of what a good life consists of, we tend to assume that there are two types of people: those who agree with us, and that motley gang of idiots and devils that take the other side.

Humility rests in recognizing that there are people who are more intelligent than us, better informed than us, and more moral than us that hold different views. No matter what those views are. Conservatives and liberals should both acknowledge that there are wiser thinkers on the other side. Priests and atheists should both envy the thoughtfulness of thinkers in other camps. There is no consensus opinion within humanity, and unless we are truly the most exceptional folks around, that means there are better souls who disagree with us in fundamental ways.

The second necessary virtue is restraint. Restraint consists of realizing that there are greater evils in the world than being incorrect. The worst moments in human history occur not because people are seeking bad goals but because they are pursuing good goals without moderation.

Even if you are correct, you will cause unimaginable harm to the world if you use naked power to force that correctness on others. Terrible things have been done by ideologues who seek to bend the world to their way of thinking, regardless of whether that way of thinking is true or false.

At a practical level, restraint means recognizing that persuasion is not meant to overrule relationship. Of course we should discuss our ideas and try to convince others of their merits. That is great. However, when those attempts at persuasion start to threaten our relationships or become hurtful to those we are using them against, restraint reminds us that it is far better to shut up and show love than to keep barreling forward, leaving a trail of wounds in our wake.

The third thing to emphasize instead of tolerance is listening. This is connected to the first two - humility is the reason we should listen and restraint is what makes us do it. Yet it is the activity of really listening to each other - of trying to understand what the other person is saying - that is so essential to reclaim if we have any hope of healing the rifts that divide us from each other.

To truly listen, though, involves more than just shutting your mouth. It involves more than just being able to parrot what the other person is saying. It instead involves trying to enter their thinking such that you can grasp why they are saying it. How is it possible that someone who is just as intelligent and thoughtful as you (again, this is where the humility piece is important) can hold they views they do?

The more we listen, the more we will start to understand our own opinions and how provisional they are. As much as humility causes us to listen, it also results from it. As I have come to understand people I disagree with, I have come to recognize the limits to my own beliefs. That doesn't mean I have changed my mind - often I haven't. But I start to see how, if I was convinced otherwise on one or two fairly basic points, my whole view of the world would be different.

The more we listen the more we have hope of finding common ground. Listening actually builds relationship and trust. To be truly heard and understood by someone is a rare gift they give to us. As we offer that to each other we actually grow together, even if we still disagree.

Which we will. That's why I think those virtues are so important. We will always live in a world where the majority of people, as far as we're concerned, are wrong. The question is whether we try to batter them into submission, whether we do our best to put up with them and hope they'll change, or whether we take that as an opportunity to truly hear and learn from them and grow in our own thinking.