The current political atmosphere in the USA is an embarrasing example of a failure to promote the virtue of tolerance. For at least the last two decades, public education and mainstream media have emphasized and promoted a value identified as tolerance. This form of tolerance has even been required in many aspects of public life. Yet society seems less and less tolerant. The bitter partisanship of political rivals is a steady reminder of how divided we are as a nation. Perhaps this is politics as usual but the tone, posturing and polarization seems far worse.
It would be worth it to ask whether tolerance is a virtue one can or should mandate. Has society actually advanced a form of intolerance under the guise of tolerance?
When we feel a need to demand tolerance, it should alert us to a greater need to teach virtues that promote true tolerance. Virtues like respect, honor and neighbor love facilitate true tolerance whereas forced tolerance actually threatens these qualities.
Of course, among people who are different, a shared commitment to the value of honoring and respecting each other necessitates robust and respectful conversations about the common good. But when will we learn that the tyranny of tolerance forecloses on those conversations.
The popular version of tolerance has left many feeling like they’re under some form of societal coercion — forcing them to affirm a politically approved set of morals and values. Many perceive this to be a threat to personal liberty.
In a society that cherishes freedom, people want to know who gets to set the morals that everyone must tolerate. Who defines what we the people must accept as lawful and good? Once a law is made against something, obviously tolerance no longer applies.
What is this really all about?
Ken Myers picked up on this distortion of tolerance when he offered reflection on A. J. Conyers’s book, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit.
Conyers suggested that, “The modern version of toleration is all about power—the power of individuals to be free from interference and the power of governments to guarantee individual autonomy by stripping all other sources of authority. Tolerance (as a modern doctrine) has little to do with the survival of minority groups and everything to do with the centralizing of power. Tolerance is not so much a virtue as a strategy. What happens to a society when the strategy of tolerance has been practiced for so long that no truths are any longer self-evident?”
We need to reeducate people on the true virtue of tolerance. Tolerance, as a virtue, can only function in contexts of actual disagreement. The virtue is unnecessary to those who surrender or minimize their differences.
Truly tolerant people treat respectfully those with whom they disagree. Where disagreements are deeper, practicing tolerance can be even more virtuous.
But forced agreement only threatens true tolerance. Tyrannical versions of tolerance lead to duplicity as people increasingly subscribe to one set of beliefs publicly and another privately. Is it surprising that this breeds resentment and sometimes violence? If you force a man against his will, not only is he of the same persuasion still; he’s likely to get mad.
In a civil society, laws must be enforced and not everyone will agree on those laws. In a free society, trouble is ahead when laws are made that unilaterally overturn the collective will of the people. We must improve at respectful and open dialogue over our differences. We must do a better job at teaching and modeling the virtues of respect; honor and neighbor love. These qualities support the true virtue of tolerance.
- Doesn’t sound strange to demand zero-tolerance toward intolerance with no exceptions being tolerated?
- How can people profess to love diversity when they hold to a strange form of tolerance that promotes a monolithic culture where everyone conceals differences to avoid offense?
- Does toleration for all religions demand that each be considered true?
- It is possible to believe and teach the exclusive truth claims made by Jesus Christ without being intolerant?
- Are the people who accept those claims best positioned to show the true virtue of tolerance?
For deeper reflection:
“If, in fact, it is true that Almighty God, creator and sustainer of all that exists in heaven and on earth, has — at a known time and place in human history — so humbled himself as to become part of our sinful humanity, and to suffer and die a shameful death to take away our sin, and to rise from the dead as the first-fruit of a new creation, if this is a fact, then to affirm it is not arrogance. To remain quiet about it is treason to our fellow human beings. If it is really true, as it is, that ‘the Son of God loved me and gave himself up for me’, how can I agree that this amazing act of matchless grace should merely become part of a syllabus for the ‘comparative study of religions’?” (Bishop Leslie Newbigin)