The Intolerance of Liberal Toleration

D. A. Carson, a well-known Reformed theologian and exegete, has written a clear and well-reasoned analysis of today’s imperialistic tolerance from an Evangelical and classically liberal standpoint.

He tells us that the new understanding of tolerance has meant a shift from accepting the right of others to hold dissenting views to demanding acceptance of such views as equally valid. It thus implies a shift from free discussion of conflicting truth claims to suppressing conflicts by silencing truth claims. This shift, he says, makes the new tolerance intellectually debilitating as well as blind, intolerant, and socially dangerous.

In spite of its oddity and irrationality, the new tolerance is very difficult to fight. Developments in Western culture, the author tells us, have put it at the heart of our “plausibility structure”—the set of basic principles practically everybody accepts without question. As such, it is tenaciously held because our collective plausibility structure has become thin, and losing a large piece of what remains would threaten the coherence of our common social world.

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The result is that the new tolerance holds the obvious moral high ground while dissent is considered irrational and presumptively violent. Its demands are treated as uniquely neutral, and for that reason it carries the rights but not the responsibilities of truth: it has the right to prevail, but no obligation to explain itself. To add to the confusion, both the new and old approaches to tolerance remain in circulation and discussions shift opportunistically from one to the other. It thus becomes all the more difficult to discuss basic issues in a rational way.

Carson book coverThe author has no trouble coming up with a wide variety of examples to illustrate the perverse intolerance that results. Many of these have to do with suppression of Christianity on account of its truth claims, not least those regarding sexual morality. He mentions other situations as well, like the case of an atheist expelled from college for asking another student, who believed in astral projections and leprechauns living on another energy level, what evidence she had for her beliefs.

Carson provides a useful discussion of the history of how we got where we are now, and notes that every society necessarily mixes tolerance and intolerance. Treatments of the topic that depict tolerance and intolerance as simply “in conflict” miss what is going on. The Romans, for example, were tolerant of foreign gods, but not of people who rejected the deified Caesar.

What emerges from his discussion of such instances is a recognition that tolerance was originally more a social response than an intellectual stance. Its extent and boundaries were based on such substantive considerations as the social good. A particular instance of toleration might be accepted as a stopgap until agreement could be reached, or a way of promoting energetic and rational discussion, or as an expression of respect for those who differed on issues that were not considered fundamental.

As time passed, public life became less concerned with the public good in general and focused more narrowly on wealth, power, and avoidance of conflict. Under such circumstances higher goods became a matter of ecclesiastical or private concern, and tolerance more and more a matter of church/state relations and the right of privacy. By the end of the nineteenth century, with the abandonment of longstanding religious presuppositions of public discussion, the church became in principle a private concern as well, and tolerance a matter of letting each individual do as much as possible of what he wanted.

John Stuart Mill took the discussion to the next level by making such developments a moral ideal: he promoted radical individualism, celebrated lifestyle diversity as such, and called for social as well as legal toleration for moral innovations. The result was a tolerance that looks only to itself, or perhaps individual freedom, as the highest standard. As the author puts it, the current form of tolerance is “largely cut free from both a well-articulated vision of truth and from binding culture-wide moral standards.”

The result has not been a state of ultimate freedom but a tolerance that makes rejection of absolutes an absolute. That, of course, is self-contradiction. As the author notes, the “truth question catches up with all of us,” and secularism has turned out as absolutist and dogmatic in its commitments as any other system. It is more so than most since it denies that it has dogmatic certainties and so feels no obligation to articulate and defend itself against objection. Instead, it relies on the “manipulative bludgeoning” of accusations of intolerance.

The new tolerance thus puts irrationality and bullying at the heart of public discussion. The results are as bad as might be expected. The new tolerance can’t deal with evil, for example, so serious discussion of human life and the public good becomes impossible. That leads to practical problems. The author notes, for example, that the idea of truth is necessary to resist tyranny, giving twentieth-century tyrannies and unpleasant features of Japanese life as examples. Nor can democratic procedures solve the problem. If rational discussion is impossible democracy becomes unworkable, and power inevitably flows upward to manipulative and irresponsible elites.

The author notes that the Christian emphasis on truth makes Christianity intolerant and therefore illegitimate by the new definition of tolerance. He therefore ends the book with a discussion of how Christians (and indeed perhaps other religious believers as well) should proceed today. At the intellectual level, he says, they should stand for civility and the principle of the supremacy of truth. They should also distinguish diversity as a situation from diversity as a principle, and debunk the new tolerance and the claimed neutrality of the secular. And at the spiritual level they should evangelize, be prepared to suffer, and trust God.

Carson’s discussion is clear, careful, and intelligent. A possible shortcoming of the book is a failure to give the devil all he is due. He treats the new form of tolerance as irrational, which it is, but if we stop there it is impossible to understand why it has become so immensely powerful among intelligent, thoughtful, responsible, and well-educated people. More needs to be said of the logic of a modern outlook that views human relations technologically, and identifies what is good with what is desired. For those who hold such an outlook it is natural to divinize individual subjectivity, which leads to an extreme concern for feelings, and to reject as irrational traditional forms of social organization, which involve sexual and cultural distinctions as well as conceptions of ultimate truth. Put those two tendencies together and the result is today’s politically correct version of tolerance. The author rightly points out many ironies of the present situation. Its ultimate irony, however, is that the current craziness springs from the utilitarian and technological outlook that is now considered so purely rational.

This review first appeared March 31, 2013 on the University Bookman website and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a photograph of John Stuart Mill.


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