Mill On Tolerance (Revisited)

I wrote this several years ago, but it seems timely and apt, especially as we are entering an election year and there is so much fodder out there that needs to be worked through to make an informed decision. The key point here is that we don’t know anything unless we try to know as much as possible about an issue looked at from two (or three) sides. How many of us do that today when dialogue seems to degenerate into a shouting match at the drop of a pin and folks seek to score points rather than listen and learn from one another?

Those who agree with me are the brightest people I know. Those who disagree with me are obviously stupid. Of course, I don’t really listen to the latter group, but I must be right. In a word, even though I would like to think I am a tolerant person I strongly suspect that I merely ignore opinions I do not tend to agree with and I suspect that is not what tolerance is all about. Alexis de Tocqueville once said that tolerance may simply be another form of indifference. He’s right, of course. In our culture today we all pride ourselves on tolerance but we may, indeed, simply be indifferent. There is much we don’t care about, and that includes someone else’s point of view. I know it’s true about me and I strongly suspect it is also true about others.

To be truly tolerant, it seems to me, one needs to listen closely to another point of view even knowing it to be totally opposed to our own before we decide whether to reject it or not. I recall the words of John Stuart Mill in his superb essay “On Liberty.” Mill said:

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination.”

Let’s take a closer look at tolerance, taking our clue from Mill, even though he doesn’t use the word “tolerance” in the passage I quoted. Let’s say I’m listening to a political rant and after a few minutes I decide the guy is a wacko right-winger (or left-winger — they’re both wacko at the political extremes) and I stop listening to him. In a sense I am being tolerant. I haven’t bought a gun, followed the man into an alley, and shot him — as some in our society seem inclined to do. But I have certainly not been tolerant in the sense of the term Mill is speaking about. de Tocqueville is right, I am being indifferent: I don’t really care what the guy is saying.

Tolerance would require that I listen carefully and weigh what the man says — as Mill suggests. After that, I would then have to work through my own “take” on the issues being discussed and sort out those which seem to be the soundest in light of what I just heard. This might require changing my own beliefs, which is a very difficult thing to do. In fact, it is so difficult we don’t do it very often, if at all. That’s why we tend to dismiss those who disagree with us with a wave of the hand and, usually, a label of derision: he’s a “wacko,” or a “nut-case,” or whatever. Labeling the opposition is simpler than listening to him and taking what he says seriously. It makes things easier for us. So we embrace opinions that are most comfortable.

Tolerance is a very difficult virtue to practice, as Mill’s comment makes clear. We have come to the point in our society where we are bombarded by so much noise posing as personal opinions it is hard, if not impossible, to listen closely. So we don’t listen at all much of the time. We just filter it out. Or we half-listen and then dismiss, especially if we sense ahead of time that the person doesn’t agree with us.

And this is why we have become rather closed-minded and intolerant of others’ opinions. Not only don’t they fit in with the opinions we hold dearly and are reluctant to part with, there are simply too many of them out there and we need to protect ourselves from the bombardment. So we congregate with others of like opinions and watch and read those who agree with us, convinced that these are the bright ones — thereby firming up our own convictions. But, if Mill is right, and I think he is, we do this to our own detriment, because we lose out on the opportunity to learn something and have our minds grow and mature. I need to keep this in mind next time I dismiss the “wacko” on the TV trying to sell me the latest political panacea or farmland in the Everglades. Just because he’s wacko doesn’t mean he can’t be right.

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One thought on “Mill On Tolerance (Revisited)

  1. Thanks for the rerun. This is well said. This is why I do not care for labels as they intentionally short change the process. He is just a liberal, conservative, tree hugger, evangelical, etc., so you do not need to worry yourself with that opinion. I would add if you don’t listen, you may miss where the other’s argument falls apart. Good post, again. BTG

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