True and False Tolerance


Tolerance is an ambiguous word greatly valued by the zeitgeist. Who dares to declare himself against tolerance? There would be nothing left to say, however, if the contemporary idea of tolerance was not fundamentally distorted. Properly understood, tolerance implies respect for people but not agreement with their error or fault. Thus, ideas do not have to be “tolerant” — it is enough if they are correct.

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Real tolerance, in other words, is not incompatible with either firm convictions or the desire to persuade others. Tolerance simply rejects force and intimidation toward those who think differently. But today tolerance generally signifies something else — initially it tends to be equated with relativism and then it is identified with new norms in human life and thought. Put differently, tolerance now speaks a double language.

The prevalent idea of tolerance is connected to relativism: “each one has his truth”; “each individual is autonomous”; “the self is the source of meaning.” To be tolerant in this view is to cling to the opinion that everything is a matter of opinion and of equal opinions at that. Each person must take his bearings from his sovereign subjectivity, and no one has the right to put forth a universal standard. To affirm that a particular proposition is true by itself, apart from mere opinion, is considered an attack on tolerance.

What does this reign of universal tolerance, or dogmatic relativism, in fact mean? It has as its effect the undermining of all authority and vital knowledge, depriving all meaning from liberty and toleration. It finally destroys liberty and tolerance themselves. Taken to its logical conclusion, the reign of opinion means the end of all intellectual and moral authority, whether it be the great minds whose dialogue forms culture or the institutions — Church, family, school — that traditionally have transmitted rules of conduct. The reign of opinion means the attenuation of every form of knowledge. In the kingdom of opinion, there is no place for knowledge that engages one’s being.

What is opinion? It is something I possess, which depends upon my sovereign liberty; it is in no sense consubstantial with what I am. Indeed, profound experience rebels against opinion — would a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp say, for example, “Here’s my opinion on what I lived through”? On the contrary, the witness is engaged with his experience. As long as being is implicated, what is does not depend on my sovereign liberty. I participate, I attest to something that does not depend on me, and, as a result, I am no longer master. The reign of the self requires one to remain at the surface, on the outside. The autonomous man — the “tolerant” man is finally emptied of substance. The tolerant man is emptied of further substance as the reign of opinion deprives liberty of all meaning. When subjectivism rules, there are no longer good reasons for genuine reflection about life. What good is it, after all, to use one’s reason when the choice grounded in reason is worth the same as the most irrational one? Choices then lose all meaning; they engage nothing that counts and are no longer serious. “To be or not to be,” Hamlet’s famous question, is of the same order as “White or red wine?” and it calls for the same response: it does not matter, every one does what he wants, the choice is — in every sense of the term — insignificant. Absurdity reigns.


It is necessary to distinguish the freedom to choose from the freedom to determine the value of one’s choice. Pure liberty implies both: I am free to decide that my life’s meaning consists in bungee jumping or in doing cartwheels or pumping up my biceps or any other idiosyncratic pursuit. What is meaningful depends on the individual will. I am the master of which questions count. As Charles Taylor has underscored forcefully, under these conditions nothing is intrinsically meaningful. Freedom is deprived of significance.

In order for the exercise of my freedom to have meaning, my choices must be related to rules independent of my will: I can choose between cowardice and courage, but the value of my choice does not depend on me. To state this more emphatically, freedom of choice has no meaning unless I am not the master of meaning. Contemporary thought, of course, does not share this view; rather, opinion rules the value of things. Each person is himself the master of meaning, the master of a meaning that paradoxically means nothing. Pure freedom and universal tolerance are not just devoid of meaning — they ultimately self-destruct.

If all choices are equal, I am not able rationally to justify the choice for liberty, equality, or democracy. All “values” being equal, by what virtue can I attribute a special status to the “value” of liberty or equality? By what standard can I prefer democracy to another regime? Since opinions are equal, opinions hostile to liberty, equality, and democracy are worth the same as those that are favorable. Moreover, if opinions are equal, the opinion according to which opinions are unequal is worth the same as the opinion according to which opinions are equal. We are literally caught in a spinning wheel with no hope of extricating ourselves.

If all choices are equal, I am free to alienate my freedom. Pure freedom is defenseless against itself. The free man is free to sell his body or his soul. John Stuart Mill rightly observed that a man is not free to renounce his freedom because, if he were, he would be in a position to annihilate what justified freedom itself. Mill’s proposition is meaningful, however, only if one admits that liberty is something other than an indeterminate freedom. Pure freedom can abolish itself freely, in the same way that procedural democracy can abolish itself democratically. If democracy is reduced to procedures by which the majority-will of the people is expressed, a majority vote suffices to abolish democracy as was done in 411 B.C. when the Assembly of the people at Athens enacted an end to their democracy.

If all choices are equal, logically I must deny the universal character of the rights of man. Since each “culture” is held to be irreducible, none can be said to be superior to any other. But how can one extol such cultural relativism without abandoning the universality of rights? Of all the contradictions in which dogmatic relativism is ensnared, this one is the most visible in practice. On the one hand, the universalism of rights inspires modern man to act in order for these rights to be respected everywhere; on the other, cultural relativism imposes passivity in the name of respect for the sovereign particularity of each “culture.” Taken to its conclusion, this relativism leads to the claim that no one can prefer, take care, or protect any culture except his own. The cannibal has “the right to be different” by following the norm of his culture.

“These are my values,” say the brutal, the violent, the sadistic. If all “values” are equal, how can I answer them? Pure freedom knows no limit. Pure liberty subverts everything, including liberty itself.


The relativism of choices, values, and opinions thus has for its effect a comprehensive leveling: if everything is worthy, nothing is. This position does not truly inspire respect for conscience. The modern man who wishes to be the creator of his own “values” experiences a feeling of power, but he cannot experience any sentiment of respect, either for himself or others. Psychology operates in the same way as logic — pure freedom tends to subvert liberty.

Thus the modern world — what we call late modernity — bases itself on principles that it cannot follow to their conclusion without destroying itself. What accounts for this contradiction? Doubtless it is a matter of blindness, but is also one of duplicity. Its logical incoherence has its own logic that relativizes dogmatic relativism. Put another way, late modernity affirms more than it says it does.

On the one hand, modernity wants to be beyond good and evil; on the other, it redefines good and evil. On the one hand, it proclaims the equality of opinions; on the other, it defines what opinions are suitable. This way of speaking is contradictory, but it is also coherent. It is contradictory because its argument continues to violate logic, but it is coherent because what it forbids, requires, and inspires essentially cohere to change in the same direction the rule of human conduct.

The operation proceeds in three stages that are logically distinct. First, the dominant opinion, basing itself on the equality of opinions, discredits the idea of the good. Then, basing itself on egalitarian-libertarian dogmas, it redefines which opinions and attitudes are appropriate, which are more or less unsuitable, and which, finally, are execrable. Finally, basing itself on the prejudices of modern historicism and upon the appearance of being a “democratic” opinion, it gives to the new orthodoxy the seal of incontestability.

In the first stage, the recognition of the equality of opinions plays a subversive role. It disqualifies the idea of the “good life” as it has been understood by the philosophic and religious tradition of the West. The inherited norms and models of civilization henceforth are placed under the rubric of opinions, as were the multiplicity of individual opinions. Dogmatic relativism and dogmatic scientism join together to maintain that there is no intrinsic good. Consequently it is good to renounce the good. The new virtues have recognizable names — “authenticity,” “tolerance,” “self-expression,” “openness.” In other words, these are “values” that (despite the contradiction in terms) present themselves as “value free” and at the service of the pure freedom of oneself and others. It is implicitly understood that relativism stops at the principle that grounds it — the equality of opinions is not a matter of opinion but of dogma.

In its second stage, the dominant discourse leaves behind its professed relativism in order to present as self-evident the opinions and attitudes that define appropriate ways of being. This new version of the “good life” has two essential components: selfishness and egalitarian-humanitarian moralism. On the plane of “private morality,” the golden rule is that man is innocent by nature, free from moral responsibility. Egoism is therefore a good thing. Where is pure freedom, consisting in liberating oneself from every idea of the good, better revealed than where it is most distant from the traditional notion of the good? “Free yourself,” says the dominant opinion. “Reject all taboos, think of yourself first of all and cultivate pleasures, especially physical ones.” To live means to cultivate “each for himself” and to strive ceaselessly for the most desirable goods of all: comfort, health, youth, irresponsible sex, entertainment, the various symbols of success. Tolerance in no way demands that one keep a balance between the traditional virtues and the modern “virtues.” This practical egoism goes hand in hand with an invasive social moralism. Invited to yield to one’s appetites, one is also required to cultivate the appropriate feelings. The misfortunes of those nearby count little, but those of the world demand a vigilant eye and a bleeding heart. Here relativism gives way completely, to be replaced by moral imperatives: the denunciation of evil and compassion for suffering mankind. In the Christian moral world, evil takes a thousand forms and pierces the heart of each. In the new moral world, evil is clearly circumscribed; it is concentrated, it is incarnate entirely in certain attitudes, particularly those that violate or run counter to the new “values”: racism, sexism, elitism, and all that detracts from the cult of human rights. The idea of sin is denied ex cathedra. The one who has the right opinion belongs ipso facto on the side of the just.

This accusatory moralism is also a compassionate moralism. The chattering classes resonate with emotion before the world’s unhappiness. Compassion belongs to the obligatory sentiments — provided that it takes the appropriate form. The love of humanity does not concern itself with the family circle or the neighborhood. Rather, it concerns itself with the anonymous victims of “exclusion,” discrimination, and persecution as well as those of natural disasters. Consequently, to flaunt these fine sentiments costs nothing: love is liberated from the labors of love. It requires only an emotion, a gesture, not a true engagement.

In its third stage, the dominant opinion employs two other arguments — one historicist, the other “democratic” — to enjoin us to rally to its cause. It demands that we submit to the authority of the present because it is the present, to submit to the reigning view because it is the general view. That more fundamental issues might be at stake is simply denied, and discussion is held to be superfluous. These are orders to submit to authorities other than reason, to abdicate all genuine freedom of thought.

The dominant opinion congratulates itself on being modern and takes pride in expressing the general opinion. In large measure the dominant discourse presents itself as the spokesman of common opinion bringing to bear on everyone the weight of the supposed majority. The media present the new norms of conduct as routine, banal, self-evident, and present themselves as the representatives of pubic opinion, with polls ready at hand. Through the airwaves it is the entire society that seems to speak.

This norm, presented as banal or common, and thus legitimate or suitable, is itself largely fabricated by those who shape the dominant opinion. In other words, the dominant opinion is not identical with the common opinion it claims to express, but rather tends to shape the latter from the outside. It is not ordinary men who have forged the new tablets of good and evil and who orchestrate it by means of the media and in the schools. Who could deny the central role of political and intellectual elites in the moral revolution of the 1960s? The progress of equality by default is first and foremost the work of activists of equality: philosophers of absolute freedom, radical social scientists, immoderate partisans of rights, radical feminists, militant multiculturalists.


Here, too, opinions are not equal. These activists who play upon the keyboard of the new “values” had an impact disproportionate with their number. The benevolence of those in the media counts much here, since their milieu is especially well disposed toward so-called modern ideas. Its logic levels the world, its agents orchestrate the dominant “values.” On this point, Tocqueville’s famous interpretation of majority tyranny is wrong in that it overestimates the role of the common man. If, as he says, opinion is the ruler in democratic societies, this opinion today does not come from the people. It is above all the work of an intellectual avant-garde and its mediatized amplifiers. Thus the dominant opinion advances masked, affecting a fictitious moral neutrality. Appealing to our autonomy, we are enclosed within a circle of suitable beliefs.

The success of this maneuver is undeniable: with all the appeal of liberation, it controls the way we see and think. With the semblance of autonomy, conformity reigns. Young people especially are caught in the net, and it is very difficult for them to think that one can have a free mind and think differently. They believe they are autonomous while in fact they are profoundly conditioned. Young people are conditioned to a way of seeing and thinking that flattens and lowers life. For the Greeks, life was a tragedy; for Christians, life is a drama; for moderns deceived by ideology life was a melodrama, where the happy ending was guaranteed. For late moderns, life is but a soap opera with miserable stakes.

The way of life to which the dominant opinion invites us is the one Tocqueville feared when he saw on the horizon “an innumerable crowd of equal and similar men who focus endlessly on themselves in order to procure the small, vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.” Late modernity does not address itself to free men. Its motto can be formulated as follows: “Be a master, to be sure, but a domesticated one.”


This article originally appeared in the April 1996 issue of Crisis Magazine, and was translated by Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton.


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