On Tolerance – Part 2

As one Christian author put it, “We are not ‘tolerant’ of known or suspected truth; true tolerance comes into play only when we are confronted with what we recognize as error; and this is the reason why…there can be no real tolerance in a mind which has no strong convictions and no firm grasp on truth.”[1] He goes on to illustrate the problem:

The United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (1995) asserts, “Tolerance … involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.” But why? Might one not hold a certain dogma to be correct, to hold it absolutely, while insisting that others have the right to hold conflicting things to be dogmatically true? Indeed, does not the assertion “Tolerance … involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism” sound a little, well, dogmatic and absolute? Thomas A. Helmbock, executive vice president of the national Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, writes, “The definition of the new tolerance is that every individual’s beliefs, values, lifestyle, and perception of truth claims are equal…. There is no hierarchy of truth. Your beliefs and my beliefs are equal, and all truth is relative.” If, however, the new tolerance evaluates all values and beliefs as positions worthy of respect, one may reasonably ask if this includes Nazism, Stalinism, and child sacrifice – or, for that matter, the respective stances of the Ku Klux Klan and other assorted ethnic supremacist groups.[2]

This raises an important point. Modern “tolerance” or “anything goes” really doesn’t go for anything. No one truly believes that racism is really no different than not being racist, and that our opposition to racism is really just one belief among many that is no more true than the belief that lynching blacks or burning Jews in Nazi ovens is OK. Instead, “tolerance” is used as a wedge, or way of insisting that we accede to certain claims—sometimes for good and sometimes for evil. It is just wrong, we would say, to be intolerant of black people. But, that argument requires that we accept that there is such a thing as right and wrong, which applies to everyone. Practically every society that has ever been on the planet has been racist, except for ours—and we still have work to do. But, we don’t have a problem saying that racism is still wrong. It is better (in a real, absolute, sense) not to be racist than to be racist.

In fact, even arguing that “tolerance” is a good thing requires you to believe in absolute values of right and wrong. A Catholic philosopher wrote:

 If you think that toleration of all values and value systems is good, are you not then “imposing your values,” your value system, which includes the value of toleration, on other people or other cultures, not all of whom agree that toleration is a value? Many traditional cultures see toleration as a weakness, as a disvalue. So for you to say that everyone ought to be tolerant is for you to say that your value system, with tolerance, is really better than others, without tolerance. Isn’t that “imposing your values” on others? [No! Instead]… I think it is an insight into a real, objective, universal value: toleration. Some cultures and some individuals simply fail to see it. We make mistakes in values, you know, just as we make mistakes in anything else….A mistake means a failure to know the truth. Where there is no truth, there is no error….Notice what we tolerate: error, not truth. Evil, not good. Lesser evils, necessary evils. So the very word “toleration” presupposes real good and evil.[3]

But, as one commentator noted, these days “The only permissible judgment in polite society is that no judgment is permissible.”[4] “[I]t is one thing,” he noted, “to see the best in people, no doubt a charitable attitude of which we all sometimes stand in need; it is quite another to be unable to see the evil in them or to accord it any significance.”[5]

So, if someone accuses you of being “intolerant” for insisting that absolute truths exist, you can point out that their argument is incoherent unless they sneak in the idea of some absolute truths of their own. Basically what they’re saying is that their absolute truths are true, while yours aren’t. And that doesn’t look very tolerant—at least by their definition.

[To be continued]

[1] DA Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, kindle location 1412–17.

[2] DA Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, kindle location 162–167.

[3] Peter Kreeft, The Best Things in Life: A Contemporary Socrates Looks at Power, Pleasure, Truth, & the Good Life (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 175.

[4] Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left of It (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005), 238.

[5] Theodore Dalrymple, “Second Opinion,” in The Spectator (11 October 2003); also in Second Opinion: A Doctor’s Dispatches From The Inner City (Monday Books, 2010), kindle location 5311.