Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On Tolerance and Timidity

Tolerance can be a virtue.  But tolerance should be reasonable.  There are certain views, and conduct, which need not be tolerated.  There are even some which should not be tolerated, in a certain sense.  There are circumstances where intolerance is justified.

There would seem to be nothing prima facie objectionable about the first two sentences above, from a common-sense standpoint.  The status of the following three sentences, though, appears to be questionable, or seems at least to be questioned, in these interesting times.

Judging from conversations with my own children, they if not others are being taught that it is inappropriate to make judgments, particularly about people, religions (or religious beliefs) and what may be described, in general terms, as culture.  This is not necessarily a new development.  Indeed, judgment or the act of judging has traditionally been denigrated; one has only to visit one of the many archives of famous and not-so-famous quotations on the Internet to find quote after quote taken from the famous and not-so-famous warning of the impropriety of judging anyone, or anything.

Expressing caution regarding the making of judgments, and exercising caution in making them, seems laudable enough.  The danger is that we may come to believe that they should not or cannot be made, or that even though we cannot avoid making them, it is impossible to make reasonable judgments.

Thinking can be hard, but it can be valuable.  I confess I wonder if there is behind certain excessive views of tolerance and certain criticisms of judging a prejudice against thought, particularly against the use of reason and intelligence in thought.  One finds this prejudice particularly, it seems, among those who profess (usually loudly and continually) to be various sorts of relativists or nihilists, or to be especially learned, generally in my experience in certain academic subjects, or who frequent certain electronic forums.

Person X wonders if it is wrong to long for the deaths of millions as it would make life "better"; or if the Nazis were really evil; or if murder is wrong, or torture, or whatever.  Is it necessary to tolerate such nonsense in the sense of accepting them as entirely appropriate expressions of opinion which may or may not be valid, worthy of discussion?  Cannot one be free to reject them, denounce them, even loathe them without being considered "intolerant" or "judgmental"?  Isn't one justified by not tolerating them, in such a fashion?

This is not to say that such idiotic thoughts should be regulated or suppressed by the state.  Fools should be free to be fools, provided they do no harm (and harm should not include hurt feelings or injured pride when it comes to the exercise of governmental powers).  But at the same time, there is nothing wrong with pointing out that certain opinions and conduct are objectionable, and that they are sometimes very objectionable.  They need not be accepted, or tolerated, as no better or no worse than any other thought or action.  There seems to be a kind of intellectual cowardice involved in certain forms of "toleration."


  1. A very good post.

    Have you read "Kindly Inquisitors"? An excellent book about this subject.

  2. Thank you.

    I haven't read that book, but will try to do so. Thanks for mentioning it. It's an important subject, I think.

  3. Perhaps this is the critical subject for democracy to handle properly. If we fail in this, our individual liberties and our open society could indeed fall.