Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Truth About Tolerance

How do you respond to the word tolerance? Unfortunately—in my own mind at least—it’s become a fairly bad word, in part because it’s become code for “shut up and don’t critique.”

In their new book, The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity and the Culture Wars, Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti seek to resurrect the classical notion of tolerance, showing its compatibility with and dependence on truth.

Stetson and Conti critique both soft-headed hypertolerance (tolerating what ought not be tolerated) and narrow-minded intolerance (failing to be tolerant when we should). Instead, they argue for critical tolerance (which returns to the historic, classical understanding of the concept which contains two poles: both allowance and critique).

The classical understanding of tolerance looks an evil, or a generally reviled action, and determines that its legal suppression would create an even greater evil.

They argue that “true tolerance is not the province of the secular liberalism that so strongly favors American life, and that unfettered debate about traditional moral conviction—especially religiously grounded ones—is ironically imperiled by what passes for tolerance today.”

They summarize ten basic principles which comprise the Judeo-Christian conviction regarding the operation of true tolerance in a largely secular and pluralistic society as follows:

  1. Tolerance, rightly understood, is a patience toward a practice or opinion one disapproves of.
  2. The practice of tolerance must have limits.
  3. Tolerance allows for prudent moral criticism and strongly held individual belief.
  4. There are important distinctions to be made within the concept of intolerance and between the concepts of intolerance and nontolerance.
  5. Tolerance is a moral tool that allows for the construction and maintenance of civic order.
  6. Tolerance is rightly applied only to people’s conduct and expressions of opinion.
  7. Tolerance is inconsistent with philosophical indifference.
  8. Tolerance is consistent with a strong confidence in the truthfulness of one’s own beliefs and experience.
  9. Since tolerance is inevitably connected with disagreement and moral evaluation, it helpfully compels us toward a philosophical confrontation with competing and irreconcilable perspectives about the good.
  10. We should always be conscious of the various contexts in which tolerance is exercised.

For one of the chapters in the book, see The Truth About Truth (chapter 5).