Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hitchcock: Further Questions About Tolerance

Editor's Note: This is part 2 of the article I posted Friday by Professor Hitchcock. It was submitted to the Idaho State Journal for consideration and is published here with his permission. Scroll down for part 1 or you can follow this link.


If, as I suggested in a previous column, tolerance consists in restraining the desire to “act out” one’s disapproval of others’ behaviors or beliefs, the question then becomes: what degree of restraint is required? If total restraint is exercised, there will be no behavioral manifestations of disapproval whatsoever, including speech. No doubt there are circumstances under which this degree of inhibition, whether theoretically necessary or not, is the wisest course of action. If, for example, I am convinced that my daughter-in-law is raising my grandchildren to be savages, silence may be the best way for me to practice tolerance.

Silence is also something often recommended by parents. How often did our mothers say: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all?” Of course many of us failed to follow that admonition and therefore encountered another piece of childhood wisdom: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” However untrue that may be for children (or adults), we Americans have tended to regard critical and abusive speech as not only harmless, but, in a certain sense, privileged.

The right to not remain silent is, of course, assured to us by our Constitution, and the rationale for that right is generally understood to be that democracies function most effectively if all opinions on topics of social interest are heard and discussed. In the “marketplace of ideas”, the more competing opinions there are, the greater the chance that the truth will be recognized and acted upon. Moreover, as John Stuart Mill argues in On Liberty, a person whose opinions are borrowed from others and who has never personally tested those opinions against the full spectrum of contrary opinions cannot be rightfully said to hold them at all. The public conflict of ideas is thus as essential to the individual’s intellectual integrity as it is to the welfare of society. As a result, the expression of opinion is much more than a right: it is an obligation.

If, then, giving voice to one’s opinions serves the best interests of both society and the individual, it would seem very odd to stigmatize all those who do so as intolerant. We must conclude that, under most circumstances, acting out one’s disapproval through speech is not incompatible with being tolerant.

Some might suppose, nonetheless, that though speech, per se, is not intolerant, the manner of speech may be, for a speaker may show insufficient restraint in his or her choice of words. Mill thought that the manner of expression was irrelevant. He pointed out that those holding minority view are often condemned for abusive language, while the prevailing majority’s inflamed rhetoric is ignored. A local illustration of this is a recent ISJ “Faith” column by a Pocatello minister who asserted that all those who embrace “the lie,” (i.e. the view that god does not exist), are selfish, narcissistic, rebellious, disdainful of the lives and property of others and actively engaged in destroying morality, peace, and culture. No one was moved to publicly question the ferocity of this attack, much less accuse the minister of intolerance.

That minister’s vehemence in his denunciation of atheists might well remind us of the historical roots of the concept of tolerance. It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that when and wherever Christians have had the ability to do so, they have not just willingly, but eagerly, persecuted those who did not share their beliefs. Pagans, Jews, Muslims, and heretics faced not only denunciation, but oppression, exile, torture, death. By the end of the 17th century, religious wars between Catholics and Protestants had raged in Europe for one hundred and fifty years. In 1689 the English philosopher John Locke, fearful that his homeland was about to witness an outbreak of this warfare, sent a long essay to a friend in Holland which came to be known as the Letter Concerning Toleration. In it he argued that it was both inconsistent with the principles of Christianity, and beyond the legitimate purview of civil government, to use force or the threat of force to extirpate or inhibit the practice of religious beliefs with which someone disagreed. Hence, sectarians and governments alike must tolerate all religious beliefs and practices.

It seems sensible to extend this conception of religious tolerance to tolerance in general, i.e. to conclude that the sort of restraint tolerance requires is an unwillingness to engage in the use of coercive force to halt or impede behaviors and beliefs of which we disapprove. That seems satisfactory, as far as it goes, but important questions remain unanswered. Is it, for example, intolerant to circulate a petition that seeks to create a law banning certain behaviors or beliefs? Laws, after all, represent intolerance that is socially-approved, and because of that approval we don’t usually regard as intolerant those who support and enforce them – nor, perhaps, those who campaign to enact them. But then sometimes we do, as in the case of the infamous Jim Crow laws. Why is this the case?

It seems clear that a satisfactory analysis of tolerance must go beyond this column’s conclusions regarding the proper definition of a tolerant act. What must also be explored is the substantive question that lies at the heart of the matter: what sorts of beliefs and behaviors actually deserve to be treated with tolerance?

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