It never fails. As soon as people of sound moral and ethical character protest acts of hatred or inequality, there are cries of “the tolerant left” being intolerant of anyone who doesn’t share their views.
Whether it be the post-election anti-Trump rallies, the Hamilton-Pence dust-up, or former Red Sox hero (and current embarrassment) Curt Schilling’s firing from ESPN, you didn’t have to look far to find alt-right ‘news’ sites, conservative pundits, and Twitter trolls crying ‘intolerance.’
Here’s the thing, though. Tolerance in no way requires one to be tolerant of the intolerant. (And no, that’s not something I just made up.)
The philosopher Karl Popper, writing about this ‘paradox of tolerance,’ stated, “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.”
Therefore, he concluded, “We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”
Many of us have certainly run into a scenario in which we have been called ‘intolerant’ for denouncing others’ intolerant views. If one is self-aware, such an accusation does not fall on deaf ears. Progressives are often pointing out the hypocrisy in others as a means of highlighting the need for reflection or reform. It would make sense that accusations of hypocrisy and intolerance would give pause to one who is combating intolerance.
The UN’s Declaration on Principles on Tolerance is probably as fine a document as you will find on the subject. It does a great job of explaining that tolerance does not require that one be tolerant of intolerance. This is where the rubber meets the road.
When we denounce beliefs which cause harm to others, we are in no way in conflict with the concept of tolerance. Tolerance, in part, is “the responsibility that upholds human rights, pluralism (including cultural pluralism), democracy and the rule of law. It involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism and affirms the standards set out in international human rights instruments…The practice of tolerance does not mean toleration of social injustice or the abandonment or weakening of one’s convictions.”
It wouldn’t hurt us to give more attention to this. There sure seems to be a lot of confusion as to what tolerance really means.
For your reading pleasure, here is Article 1 from the UN’s declaration (click through for the entirety of the declaration):
Article 1 – Meaning of tolerance
1.1 Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.
1.2 Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In no circumstance can it be used to justify infringements of these fundamental values. Tolerance is to be exercised by individuals, groups and States.
1.3 Tolerance is the responsibility that upholds human rights, pluralism (including cultural pluralism), democracy and the rule of law. It involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism and affirms the standards set out in international human rights instruments.
1.4 Consistent with respect for human rights, the practice of tolerance does not mean toleration of social injustice or the abandonment or weakening of one’s convictions. It means that one is free to adhere to one’s own convictions and accepts that others adhere to theirs. It means accepting the fact that human beings, naturally diverse in their appearance, situation, speech, behaviour and values, have the right to live in peace and to be as they are. It also means that one’s views are not to be imposed on others.
As we head into the Trump era, it would do us all a bit of good to reflect upon the true meaning of tolerance, and to ensure that, in the age of post-truth, we don’t let the intolerant re-write the definition.