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The Intolerance of Tolerance

Greg Koukl
Stand to Reason
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.

Learn more at Stand to Reason.

© 2010, Greg Koukl. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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