On Toleration

In this day of increasing intolerance it behooves us to come to grips with the notion of tolerance and ask ourselves just how much outrage should be tolerated. In an attempt to answer this question I will begin with an interesting comment in Michael Walzer’s book from which I stole the title for this post: On Toleration. Walzer says, in part:

“Toleration itself is often underestimated, as if it is the least we can do for our fellows, the most minimal of their entitlements. In fact, tolerance (the attitude) takes many different forms, and toleration (the practice) can be arranged in different ways. Even the most grudging forms and precarious arrangements are very good things, sufficiently rare in human history that they require not only practical but also theoretical appreciation. . . .[Toleration] sustains life itself, because persecution is often to the death, and it also sustains common lives, the different communities in which we live. Toleration makes difference possible; difference makes toleration necessary.”

The problem is, of course, we have a leader who preaches the opposite of toleration, a man who harangues and berates difference and seeks to raise outrage to a fever pitch. We must ask how much of what is said in support of breeding hatred is to be tolerated. To what extent is our freedom of speech a right to be protected above all others? Is one’s right to free speech license to spread hatred and rouse the rabble to violence? I suspect not, though I realize that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know just where to draw the line.

The same is true for toleration in general. As Walzer notes, it is a good thing. Indeed, in a democracy it is an essential thing. In a democracy difference must be tolerated because all voices need to be heard and all ways of life must be protected. Or must they? Must we tolerate the behavior of a man in the theater who shouts “fire” just for a laugh? Must we tolerate the violence of an athlete who beats his wife? Again, where do we draw the line?

I might suggest that we draw the line when toleration leads to harm, knowing full well how troublesome that word can be. We must tolerate difference and defend the right of others to be eccentric, even positively strange, to the point where that behavior leads to harm to another person — or an animal. No further.

Walzer suggests a broader criterion, namely, allowing individuals to coexist in peace. But please note that he also suggests limits:

“To argue that different groups and/or individuals should be allowed to coexist in peace is not to argue that every actual or imaginable difference should be tolerated.”

In a word, there are some things that simply should not be tolerated. The problem is to decide in each case which it is to be, fully realizing that allowing folks to coexist in peace rules out any harmful, or potentially harmful, treatment toward others.

It is often noted that today’s youth should be praised for their tolerance, for the willingness of the young to put up with almost anything. Old folks like me complain about the noise from a passing car or a crying baby in a crowded restaurant. The young would probably not even notice. Is this tolerance I wonder? Or is it mere indifference, or even obliviousness? Are the young so wrapped up in themselves that they simply don’t notice the things that bother many others? There is an important difference here, but this difference, among so many others, must also be tolerated. It’s what makes the world go ’round. It is what makes a democracy strong. But when tolerance shades off into indifference we need to pause, because it means that we have stopped thinking about those things that ought NOT to be tolerated.

A leader who stands up before an adoring crowd and berates others because of their look, the color of their skin, their religious affiliation, or their immigrant status is no leader for a country that calls itself a democracy. He, or she, is the epitome of intolerance and an example of the type who simply doesn’t know where the line is to be drawn. And, as I suggest, it must be drawn when tolerance leads to the harming of others, or the determination to plant within the hearts and minds of the listeners a hatred of those who are different from themselves, a hatred that can easily lead to violence. Speech and behavior of all types must be not only allowed but even defended in a democratic society. But when speech or behavior cross the line then toleration ceases to be a good thing. It amounts to callous indifference to the pain and suffering of others, something that should never be tolerated.


43 thoughts on “On Toleration

  1. Yes, we should not tolerate hatreds, defamation, violence and killing. But we do every single day Hugh. Are we so powerless? It is difficult to bear, so people turn away in fear for their own safety, either through direct conflict or fear of retributions from authorities or other parties involved. The world has become a sinister place, and the people who try to do good, do so with little fanfare, keeping their heads low. When we hear about those who have dared to stand up to defend a victim, they are so often cut down too. Conflict on this planet is at an all time high… It’s just that no one can see it because they are too busy keeping their heads low or looking deliberately the other way. How on earth can we fix this, when those with the most power, don’t wish to do so?

    • Excellent questions. And I don’t know the answers. I can only say we must do what we CAN do and not worry about the things we cannot possibly fix. There are simply too many. But I must add that knowing that an act is intolerable and doing something about it are two entirely different things! The problem is that many, as you suggest, don’t even bother to look and see.

    • I think you will find Steven Pinker in his book’ Enlightenment Now ‘ gives much evidence to deny things are getting worse and even claims things are getting better! He points to life expectancy , and the fact that the numbers of those in extreme poverty have been reduced. Apparently where he parts company with other experts is on the danger of AI taking over. I had to smile when he commented that today’s intellectuals prefer gloom and doom .

      • He’s probably right Kertsen… The age of much information now tends to make us think that things are much worse than in the past. However, we do well not to ignore injustices and all that they imply. We can become complacent.
        The late Stephen Hawking was troubled by the development of AI. In the right hands it can be a boon to end a lot of human tasks. In the wrong hands, it eliminates the reason for needing humans to work and then we all know what happens when society deems a certain demographic population to be parasitic. I am not convinced that AI won’t be turned into the production of yet another demonic weapon. Sigh… History repeating itself. ☹️

      • There are problems facing humankind today that make problems in the past seem like truffles. The notion that things are getting better requires selective vision. Longer lives, to take that one example, pose challenging problems for us all.

  2. On the societal level, ideally, when someone’s bad behavior advances to the point of breaking the law, that signals when we may objectively stop tolerating. Our “leader” is currently being investigated for Russian collusion, unlawful use of campaign funds, unlawful use of charitable donations, and probably money laundering. So that is good. While his unprincipled base may not care about broken laws, the majority of this nation is well pass toleration. We are getting rid of Trump, be assured.

  3. Do we legislate only to de-legislate; do we enforce a political correctness, or rely on laissez-faire; free speech with limits or without? Or do we become compassionate beings who would never use language to harm another thus requiring no type of restraint thus preventing any possibility of counter movements? We know the answer, we just don’t want to deal with it in a common sense way so we rely instead on legislation which has never worked and never will. What we suppress through legislation is only going to erupt in violence down the road. Legislation is never a solution.

      • It’s too obvious to be readily seen, I suppose. In the comment I said, become compassionate beings. Time and events will always prove this to be the correct answer to our endless social problems and issues. The problem I see is not with the solution: to be a compassionate person, no holds barred, but in man’s intransigence; the species obdurate refusal to attempt a higher and better way to deal with one another. Compassion has it all, without fail. Respect, understanding and acceptance, patience, non-condemnation, charity, generosity, sharing, empathy, unconditional love. Compassion breaks your heart but protects you always from being the heart breaker. It is the ultimate jewel inside each one of us but we denigrate, even fear it because we cannot have our cake and eat it too. Compassion will not allow us to retain our ego and hubris, the hallmarks of our imploding civilization.

      • I agree about compassion and its constituent parts – not least the ‘do unto others’ of the Christian and so many other faiths. But can you really believe what you suggest is attainable in a world filled with so many humans with so may differing, so many fragile mental states, with fluctuating hormones, with entrenched capitalism driving them to want material things? To need air conditioning and heating to live where they live? With competition for mates and materials? Idealism is great and can help some people mitigate the worst of what human nature delivers – or is delivering , but I can’t see how we could ever create a world where we all, all of us, all of the time, are perfectly compassionate and reasonable.

      • Why offer the impossible? Because I have nothing else to offer? I work with what I know will work, I won’t spend time discussing solutions to issues that have proven, time and again, to be non-solutions. We have sought redress to many horrible abuses people commit against other people and their natural and essential to survival environment. We like to believe that we have actually accomplished some of those redresses only to find that the dykes we built are once again breaking down around us and we must needs address the rebuilding. Problem is that new dykes require resources we are less able to garner – are we aware of that added cost? We are in full retrenchment mode now and while we focus on strengthening some dykes, we let others go. But that rising water will not stay by the dykes it has overwhelmed and will catch us from behind. Therefore, better and higher “local” dykes are not the answer. It’s up to every individual to wake up and change, not up to leadership, government or corporate, nor up to science or the gods, god forbid! We are it, and having eaten most of the easily grasped resources the planet has been willing to offer, what’s left must come from within each and every individual. Presenting compassion as a solution to all of our social problems is not a numbers game. I am no more successful in promoting this idea in my own physical life as on these blogs. But until someone, or something, gives me something else that can work and has never before failed, it’s what I have and what I freely give. When I toss that ball into another’s hands it’s up to her, or him, to decide what to do with it for it is no longer mine.

      • Not the hallmarks of civilisation they are the hallmarks of human nature and got us to this point like it or not. The ‘I’ or ego , some refer to it as the self was created by natural selection and it gave humans a way to view the world which enhanced progress. The snag with the ‘I’ is it became impossible to see the world without it and in my opinion that the reason science hits a barrier in investigating reality. The Buddhists believe you can meditate it away and become a selfless being as you are suggesting but that would involve undoing the very strings that bind the human mind together.

      • See my comment about compassion below. There is an entire religion built on the hope that people will be compassionate and we can see how that worked out!

      • I would have thought you might agree that Christianity has failed. It is certainly based on the concept of compassion for others. The problem is, among others, we have become a people in love with ourselves. Our attention is turned inwards and we cannot feel compassion for others if we are not even aware of them. I pursued this theme at some length in my book, “The Inversion of Consciousness From Dante to Derrida.”

      • Sad to say, we must work with what we have at hand. This is not the best of all possible worlds. It is the world we live in — with all its imperfections.

    • Beware of sweeping generalizations! (I know whereof I speak since I am given to them!) But without civil laws we would live in a state of nature. They are not perfect, but they are necessary. In the end, as you suggest, it requires that we desire the good of our fellow humans or we do end up in a state of nature!

      • We require civil (?) laws because of the state we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into, believing we are as we are and we cannot change when in fact we are as we are despite our better natures. I do not see it as a choice between civilization and a “state of nature” although in a state of nature we wouldn’t have the organized forces that oppress; we would not have nuclear weapons that could wipe out the planet in minutes. In a state of nature we would not live under a cloud created by the most insane of the species. But I give you a third, and much superior choice, though not I particularly, but common sense: compassion, Hugh. Since such a state of mind requires no external support anyone can be compassionate, a choice anyone, anywhere, in any condition or situation, can make. All that is required here is a mental shift and everything changes. How many people have said the same, in different ways? John Lennon wrote, “Imagine”. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream.” Both assassinated. We want to discuss but we don’t want to do. Therefore we remain on the treadmill but it isn’t eternal and when the bearings go, we all fall off.

      • Compassion must be learned (if it can be) by example. There are fewer and fewer of those who feel genuine compassion in a capitalist society dedicated to the profit motive, where so many seem to be lost within themselves. Because of this laws are essential — good laws, laws that clean up the air and the water, laws that give blacks the same opportunities to become educated as whites, laws that give women the vote. There are good laws and there are bad laws, but all are necessary. Otherwise we have chaos, not freedom.

      • How do laws equate freedom (even if everyone had equal access to the justice system when in fact most do not) and laws become oppressive tools openly manipulated by the powerful and the wealthy? Law means enforcement which automatically negates any talk of freedom. More laws or more enforcement will always result in less liberty or freedom. Are those areas of our lives not controlled by state imposed laws necessarily chaotic?

      • I have written endlessly about this. But I simply echo John Locke. Without laws we do not have freedom, we have license. Thinks more deeply about what “freedom” means. Laws and order make human freedom possible. To be sure, they can be repressive and they do prohibit some sorts of actions. But they make others possible. Imagine our highways without speed laws!

      • Sadly Hugh, if we cannot push ourselves beyond being legislated in order to keep ourselves from killing each other then we are certainly doomed. Note that “laws” do not prevent mass murder, they are easily circumvented when the elites decide a war would be more profitable than their current status quo: they will manufacture the reason and they will turn the laws 180 degrees around to suit their desires. The sheeple will learn to kill and some may even be ensconsced as heroes as a result. How many will note the dichotomy? The insanity? Perhaps common sense “laws” such as traffic laws should be referred to as rules, not laws, to differentiate between civil “laws” and criminal laws?

      • Laws can be enforced; rules cannot. Traffic laws are there for the benefit of all, presumably. The key is to elect those who would pass only laws that are simply designed to benefit the few.

      • Quote: “The key is to elect those who would pass only laws that are simply designed to benefit the few.” I can only agree, then ask, “OK, so when do we start doing that? When do we begin to ensure that only those who represent ‘the people’ i.e., the polis, i.e., the real taxpayers, get elected to pass those laws?” All our pathetic “democracies” are bought and paid for with representative corruption gone on a wild exponential roller coaster ride. Can we fix that or do we need the courage to ditch these ineffectual garbage dumps we call governments and design something entirely new? Or do we continue to jury-rig the mess until it collapses upon us and we find ourselves dead or struggling to survive in a stone age nightmare?

  4. Hugh, my apologies, I wrote a longer comment before the one (two!) about Life of Brian and it vanished – where it went I don’t know! My new phone… Back to the trusty desktop now.
    I wished I had read this earlier in the week when I was toiling over a post I wanted to write – out later today. There must be something in the air. Perhaps it is all those cumulative Tweets of that man in the White House.
    Your piece is timely, thorough as usual and takes an angle I find really interesting. I recall once more the essay I had to write age 17 for an exam on whether democracy contained the seeds of its own destruction. Democracy as your piece makes clear, society indeed, can only function with some level of tolerance of ‘other’. But now it seems mischievous – or wicked? – forces have opened a Pandora’s Box of freedom to speak hatred, or plain unpleasantness that damages that web of societal acceptability. It is more than sad to see people in high places all over the world enjoying that new freedom to despise, abuse, hate, ridicule, crow.
    What can we do? ‘Very little’ feels like the answer. I suppose we can begin by holding to account those who represent us, writing, emailing, writing to the press… And where it will not result in physical injury or physical abuse, standing up against verbal bullies in public places.
    If any of you who have commented here find answers to this that are better, more satisfying, I do hope you will let us all know. It is immensely frustrating to see what is happening to our world.

  5. Hugh, this is well argued and pertinent. When do the more tolerant decide to not tolerate the intolerant? When the intolerant are enflaming people, hurting people or demeaning people, I agree the tolerant must step up. Keith

      • Truly it is past time. One of your commenters noted that MLK feared the silent people who knew better. This post created good brunch table conversation.

        I get back to a comment that I make often, one need not be a jerk to push back on someone. Yelling matches solve little, but engaged conversation where push back occurs might get in. Per my recent post, if we reiterate to those who support the President that he does himself a disservice when he is untruthful, that might get heard and acknowledged. Anyone who says the President does not lie is not being honest with themselves. If I can get that statement heeded, it may be followed by a retort that all politicians lie. Yes, they do, but I am troubled that he has been measured at lying more than 2/3 of the time and he is setting policies off these lies.

        We need more conversations like this one. His followers need to hear that lying matters. Keith

    • Can’t resist it: the tolerant musth become intolerant of intolerance… without becoming intolerant otherwise… hm, let’s see, where does this go again? Political correctness?

  6. ‘ The young put up with everything ‘ indeed they do , but living makes us sensitive and us well cared for westerners need piles of comforts as we grow older , soft pillows , warm beds , cosy cars , shaded lights , food cooked to perfection and the right company. Ah that’s better now I can relax and put the world to rights. Perhaps us oldies need to turn up the toleration or maybe we need to get those young bloods to turn down the music.
    When you consider huge cities with millions of people it’s amazing that they can exist in relative peace , wild animals need far more territory.

  7. Dr. Curtler,

    Again, an important and thoughtful essay. Your comments reminded me of the kerffufle over the book, Critique of Pure Tolerance by Moore, Wolff, and Marcuse (1965).

    Relevant to this discussion is the “paradox of tolerance”, which the philosopher Karl Popper defined in 1945 in The Open Society and Its Enemies [Vol. 1 (note 4, Chapter 7:1]

    Poppers argues that unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

    In 1971, philosopher John Rawls concludes in A Theory of Justice that a just society must tolerate the intolerant, for otherwise, the society would then itself be intolerant, and thus unjust. However, Rawls also insists, like Popper, that society has a reasonable right of self-preservation that supersedes the principle of tolerance: “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.”[2][3]

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