It is very common to hear in discussions on tolerance the phrase “I’m tolerant of everything except intolerance”. This is often proudly stated affirming the most progressive liberalism. But is it liberal?
I believe today such a view as tolerant of everything except intolerance is used primarily in normal discourse and media as a means to push aside, demonize, and invalidate those with a different opinion. Furthermore, that form of liberal intolerance to those who are said to be “intolerant” is detrimental to democracy, and peaceful communities. This rests upon the idea that those who are intolerant to one another cannot engage in meaningful discourse to resolve differences and that it is the resolving of differences which should be a core goal for communities and governments. Otherwise, the result is violence in the streets as we now see in America where both sides see the other, in ways, as intolerant. The need to use force in the form of violent protests to express an opinion shows that discourse as devolved.
At the core of the current strife on tolerance is holding very subjective beliefs and values as objective truths. There is no science that can point to whether someone should like or dislike another’s view on political and social matters. Social and Political scientists may disagree with that claim, wanting authority for their opinions, while biological, life, and physical scientists would agree, a person’s opinion is not an objective truth. Rather, a person’s opinion is built on differing social environments and experiences, formed largely in a way that reinforces and provides a sense of belonging to a community that they have chosen to follow. However, conflict arises when a person views their opinion as objective. When that is the case, often the person becomes less inclined to begin a dialogue with a different opinion on what should be put into policy. Instead attempts to teach and impose the “right” view that the person holds is the outcome.
The imposition of opinions and beliefs of the majority above those of the minority is a common story of power imbalances combined with a near fanatical desire at times to secure power to govern over populations. Opinions and beliefs have been imposed upon people who are not feasibly allowed to disagree through strict authoritarian legal structures. Additionally, great effort has been made to maintain agreement and a harmonious unity of opinions through subtle and ingrained propaganda campaigns both public and private that few can discern from advertising and public service announcements. It is not being said that these opinions and beliefs are harmful, merely that they are entrenched into societies each with the possibility of being entirely unique from one another. It is exceptionally difficult for those that are not tolerated to become accepted and enter the mainstream in the market places of opinion as it is now. When examined such market places of opinion including those in liberal democratic societies show intolerance to differences that fall outside of windows of the acceptable and jeopardizes freedom of expression and speech as a universal absolute right.
If we are not to jeopardize freedom of expression and speech, what obligations are there to be tolerant? We know that to not tolerate is to exclude from discussion, often push to the side, and ignore or worse criminalize. This is true of both those who are commonly said to be intolerant and those who are tolerant of everything except intolerance. A first obligation would be to accept that a person does not have authority on truth of opinion. This should immediately led to the understanding of why it is essential to listen rather than distance those with an opinion that differs. The second obligation is to listen to those with opinions that differ. It is only through listening to each other that progress can be made in terms of providing supportive needs and wants to a group other than the one a person belongs to, and ultimately foster progress towards a peaceful community. The third obligation is to build and foster an ongoing discourse among those who listen to each other with the aim that they then also understand the others opinion.
What if these obligations cannot be fulfilled? It is easy to accept the subjectivity of opinions although listening implies there is something to listen too. In addition, discourse implies that the other agrees to dialogue and is listening to a persons opinion in similar extent as the listener is of theirs. When the elements to meet these obligations are not present, effort should be made to bring the other into a state where it is desirable to voice an opinion, to listen, and to enter dialogue. Bringing about this state is not a necessity but it is beneficial. While it cannot be said all measure to create this state is warranted, great effort should be made to do so, recognizing its contribution to reaching an ideal state of peace. Otherwise, division, exclusion, and a hindering of full representation in society of multitudes of expression would remain.
There are two main criticisms that can be lodged against this line of thinking. The first is that intolerance leads to hate, which leads to hate crimes, which is abhorrent. To this it is easy to say not necessarily. A person can certainly be intolerant to someone without hating them, and that same person can certainly hate someone without committing a hate crime against them. At the same time, no one should be asked to tolerate hate or worse crimes. That is not what is being asked. Intolerance is to not accept another person’s opinion, view, or actions and behaviour that are otherwise legal. It is the acceptance of an intolerant mind that should tolerated. Criminalization of hate crimes is understandable and necessary but to push for criminalization of hate and intolerance should not be permitted. Enforcing tolerance leads to hegemony of thought, restricted expression and speech, and is a dystopian future. The right to a unique and individual opinion and expression of that opinion in a non-harmful manner is far greater a right than to not be offended.
A second critique is to say there is no reason to accept peace as being the core goal. While tolerating the intolerant might be good for peaceful coexistence a critic may say conflict is natural and we should not strive for something other than the realities of human society. Although conflict is a fact of nature, it is not a necessary truth of human nature. Furthermore, a continuous state of peace would be conducive to human flourishing in a manner that a state of conflict would not. Therefore, a goal for governments and communities other than peace would be contradictory to human flourishing and is arguably reducing the discussion to the absurd.
The intolerant must be tolerated. Institutions and laws allowing for freedom of expression whether they be of a tolerant or intolerant nature must be maintained. Only in such a state can there be equality of opinion. These qualities, freedom of expression and equality, are basic to a peaceful coexistence which is the only valid objective for governments and one which should be reached through peaceful means.