Politics & Policy

Tolerance, the Key to Liberty

Separating the person from the belief is a basic requirement of a free society.

When Roger Williams published The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution in 1644, colonial New England was beset by religious and cultural controversies. The experience of being religious dissenters in England had not made the Puritan divines entirely sympathetic to the status of religious minorities. Instead, authorities in the Massachusetts Bay Colony resorted to imprisonment, banishment, physical punishment, and, in some cases, execution to suppress religious dissent. Williams responded to this atmosphere by making a case for cultural and political tolerance. Calling for a separation of the institutions of government from those of religious institutions, Williams argued for a society where freedom of conscience and religious belief would be celebrated. Williams’s argument was not entirely successful; religious suppression continued in parts of New England (a handful of Quakers were executed between 1659 and 1661, for example). But it has been quite influential. Williams realized how radically transformative the impulses of tolerance could be, and many of the architects of the American civic sphere, such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, recognized tolerance as key for the enterprise of liberty.

In the “outrage porn” of the current moment, many are eager to position themselves as puritanical arbiters of justice. Conflating moral rectitude with expressions of anger (at both “bad” thoughts and the thinkers of those “bad” thoughts), the advocates of outrage wage a scorched-earth campaign to demonize, harass, and mock those with whom they disagree. “Moral indignation” has thus been rendered redundant, as pique directly correlates with the precision of one’s moral compass. In such an atmosphere, tolerance may be viewed not as a virtue but as an indifference to evil. Though it might be unfashionable, tolerance has powerful claims as an individual and civic virtue, so there is considerable merit in renewing a case for tolerance as helping to sustain and invigorate the American republic.

All too often, we have seen “tolerance” used either as a device for annihilating skepticism or as a Trojan horse for ideological warfare. In the former case, “tolerance” preaches that no way of living and no opinion is better than another (the implication being that those who defend some deeper ethical order are themselves intolerant). In the latter case, “tolerance” simply becomes a device for undermining one set of values and putting another set in its place. In many of America’s college campuses, for example, we see all too often how “tolerance” and the notion of academic freedom fall to the wayside the instant a student, faculty member, or invited speaker runs afoul of leftist pieties: Heretical thoughts are branded as “intolerant,” and therefore those thoughts and their thinkers must be purged from the college community.

In the face of these distortions of “tolerance,” we might return to a kind of tolerance that joins serious moral inquiry with authentic cultural dialogue and social pluralism. Tolerance does not mean a kind of moral nihilism, where all values are equally right and wrong, so who can judge? A bright line divides tolerance from glib indifference. Tolerance is maintaining moral principles while also recognizing the moral agency of another. It demands holding to one’s values while acknowledging that one might be limited in these values. It demands allowing others to do things with which one might disagree and to hold opinions that one might find problematic (and even hateful). Tolerance is allowing those whose beliefs are contrary to yours, and who live contrary to your moral views, some latitude to live their lives without public or private harassment.

The fact that some of the earliest uses of “tolerate” in the English language come from the act of bearing pain gives some hint as to how difficult tolerance is. In the case of tolerance, we are always on a slippery slope, ever negotiating the boundary where disagreement and disapproval of principles cross over into the persecution of those who hold these principles. Tolerance demands that we perpetually examine our own individual exercises of power.

Tolerance insists upon the distinction between the sphere of opinion and behavior and that of personhood. In that insistence, it makes possible a space for disputation combined with common fellowship or, if you will, brotherly love. When we offer some separation of opinion and behavior from personhood, we acknowledge that an individual can do things or hold positions with which we disagree and still maintain some essential human dignity. We recognize that, in censuring certain actions or thoughts, we need not assail the personhood of another. As part of that recognition of personhood, the tolerant individual and community become wary about exiling dissenting individuals and declaring them social outlaws.

Flawed and limited as it may be, perhaps more aspirational than fully realized, American pluralism depends upon some mode of tolerance. Some might say that tolerance and freedom are at cross-purposes, and sometimes one must be exchanged for the other. Yet it seems rather the other way around: Tolerance and freedom are allies. When we are asked to surrender some essential freedom (such as religious belief and ethical inquiry free from state coercion) in the name of “tolerance,” too often we will end up with a society that is neither tolerant nor free.

Some aspects of tolerance are a matter of law: for example, not levying taxes against a religious organization in retaliation for its theological and ethical principles. Others are a matter of a broader civic culture: not boycotting a business because it employs those with whose ethical principles we might disagree, for example. The legal kind of tolerance is very important, but the broader social conception of tolerance is key to maintaining this pluralism. Laws and social norms are distinct from each other, but they can form a feedback loop. A society full of raging intolerance in the sphere of social interaction will likely degenerate into a society where that intolerance is codified into law. For instance, the racial paranoia in parts of the defeated Confederacy was key to the institution of Jim Crow, which was both a legal and a cultural order.

That broader theme of cultural tolerance plays a key role in our enjoyment of freedom. Though many advocates of tolerance have focused on the legal sense (in terms of limiting the power of the state to suppress dissent and diversity), much of their criticism of intolerance has turned upon the role of force and coercion in general. Roger Williams wrote, for example, that “to molest any person, Jew or Gentile, for either professing doctrine, or practicing worship merely religious or spiritual, it is to persecute him, and such a person (whatever his doctrine or practice be, true or false) suffereth persecution for conscience.” Williams seems to suggest, then, that any attempt to harass, demean, or assail another person for his or her beliefs or religious practices is an act of persecution, whether these beliefs seem noble or base to others. This radical sense of tolerance heavily depends upon the distinction between personhood and opinion. Entering into a dialogue with another to discuss ethical principles would not seem to be an act of persecution from Williams’s perspective, but attempting to destroy a person for holding to certain ethical principles would.

Maintaining public tolerance is often not a matter of law but a matter of how we choose to use our freedom in the civic space. Consider the organizing of an online posse to harass the employer of a private individual who has made some political or controversial comment on a personal social-media site. Certainly, individuals have a legal right to organize and to boycott a company for any reason they like. Yet while the attempt to destroy the careers of public dissenters through the cultivation of public outrage may be legally allowed, it is not necessarily the best use of freedom. Carried to their logical conclusion, these coordinated attacks upon dissenters could lead to a society at war with itself, as Democrats refuse to patronize any place at which a Republican works (and vice versa) and Red Sox fans refuse to serve Yankee fans in restaurants. In order to be maintained, freedom must be used responsibly. We are free, for instance, to vote for a candidate on a ballot at random, but surrendering critical judgment in the voting booth would very likely be injurious to the republic. So too is it with tolerance. Defenders of liberty have a very great interest in having some space for tolerance.

As Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and David Souter wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” We do not need to agree with the outcome of Planned Parenthood v. Casey to realize that there might be some wisdom in this particular statement. That freedom of conscience and moral exploration does seem one of the great aims of the enterprise of liberty. Affording some latitude of conceptual debate is therefore crucial, and a key part of affording such a latitude is not to reduce a disagreement about the means and ends of human life (certainly one of its greatest mysteries) to tribal animus. It demeans our public debates and undermines the functioning of our republic to assume that those who disagree with a given moral or political stance are necessarily motivated by hatred or bigotry. That immediate assumption of hatred leads to minds closed by intellectual poverty and to hearts shut by self-righteous vanity.

A central theme for Williams’s, Locke’s, and others’ defenses of tolerance is the notion that, through open debate, we can better arrive at moral truths (among other kinds of verities). Tolerance is what makes such an open debate possible. If individuals cannot express their opinions or subscribe to doctrines without fearing swift and unrelenting retribution, that cultural conversation will be closed down and the public sphere left poorer for it. The First Amendment has been a boon to American religion. Beyond freeing particular religions from the lash of civil authority, it has cultivated an environment of open religious debate, which in turn has encouraged more-authentic religious devotion. Individuals who subscribe to a church through their own choice, rather than because of civil coercion, are likely to believe in that church more fully. We can say a similar thing about tolerance: It keeps ideas more vital by opening them up to a rigorous conversation. Tolerance helps us negotiate complex situations and separate principle from cant. And saving an open ethical debate can be a great victory indeed. The exploration of some of the central questions of our lives is one of the key (and likely necessary) components of the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness.” That freedom of inquiry is one of the summits of the American republican order.

Tolerance demands a sense of intellectual charity. The tireless hunt for the latest micro-aggression can undermine that sense of charity. Mental gymnastics — the cognitive fluidity often confused with true sophistication — can decorate even the most anodyne phrase with accents of animus. If we seek the worst in other human beings, we will surely find the worst. As the Salem witch trials and the excesses of McCarthyism showed, paranoia can undermine the spirit of liberty and democratic exchange. That intellectual charity also demands a kind of moral imagination: the ability to see how others, not motivated by hate or bigotry or stupidity, might arrive at a different theory of life — and to realize that they might not be monsters for this difference. This intellectual charity in turn helps maintain a society at once diverse and united. Through recognizing the rights of others to hold alternative views and accepting the dignity of those with whom we disagree, we create a public space of open exchange. Tolerance and the broader spirit of understanding compensate for the divisions that might arise from differing opinions. A society riven by intolerance, where every disagreement becomes a flashpoint, is one that may soon find itself collapsing.

At its heart, tolerance aligns with some of the central principles of classical conservatism. One of the great teachings of classical conservatism is that we are limited — in our knowledge, in our powers, and in our foresight. This limitation in knowledge applies to certain practical topics. For instance, if our technical knowledge is limited, then creating a centrally planned government health-care system could be an enterprise of folly and misery. But these limitations also apply to moral knowledge: Even if we think we know true moral principles, exactly how to apply those principles to real-world situations can be a troublesome enterprise. Radical leftists might presume that they have an exclusive purchase on moral truth, reserving to themselves the right to excommunicate “bigots” from the social compact and assailing any contrary opinion as the work of a malevolent, selfish, and/or stupid brain. But conservatives recognize our moral and epistemic imperfections. This recognition of imperfection suggests that we should accept that our opinions may be mistaken and that they are open to revision. If our own opinions could be wrong, it becomes hard indeed to cast into the darkness those with whom we disagree. We might disagree with their opinions, but we cannot dehumanize their persons for holding these opinions. A common refrain in conservative circles is that, while leftists think those who disagree with them are evil, rightists think those who disagree with them are mistaken. This refrain might ring a bit self-congratulatory, but any echo of truth it has can be traced to this conservative awareness of our limits.

There will always be those who cast their opponents as witches and warlocks and who seek to substitute an auto-da-fé for rational, pluralist discourse. But part of the obligation of liberty is defending the case for civic exchange against the ideology of the pogrom. Intolerance can be a powerful tool. The rise of the New Left can in part be traced to the strategic use of intolerance to force political change (Saul Alinsky was a master of this). The Founders, though, understood that certain forms of power could be poisonous to the well-being of a free republic. In its pitiless crusade for purported rectitude, intolerance transforms the public square into a no-man’s-land crisscrossed with barbed wire.

Our society now, perhaps more than at most other times, needs not desolation, but fruition, and pluralistic exchange, not narcissistic rants. In choosing to tolerate, we recognize our partiality, and this recognition can become a vehicle for a more comprehensive search for the good and the true. Instead of the straitjacket of self-righteous vanity, tolerance opens up our hearts to mercy, empathy, and forgiveness. The virtues encouraged by tolerance have both private and public implications. Casting off the burden of ideological perfection, we become free to interrogate ourselves and to search for the truth with more open eyes. In respecting the moral autonomy of others, we turn potential strife into harmony and make possible a republic at once diverse and united.

— Fred Bauer blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.



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