OPINION: by Dr Augusto ZimmermannNews Weekly
How 'tolerance' is used to curb our freedoms
, July 6, 2013
In the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb “to tolerate” means “to endure, sustain (pain or hardship)”. Hence, a person is deemed tolerant if, while perhaps holding strong convictions, he or she still insists that others are entitled to strongly dissent or disagree from such convictions and to argue their cases freely.
This also implies that truth is objective and can be known, although the best way to uncover the truth is through a spirit of open-mindedness and mutual respect. While truth is capable of being known, the underlying assumption here is that the wisest and least malignant course of action is “benign tolerance” grounded in a form of intellectual modesty which recognises our own human limitations.
However, in recent years, the meaning of “tolerance” seems to have undergone a remarkable transformation. Contrary to its traditional meaning, the “new” tolerance appears to imply a psychological outlook which conveys a considerable sense of identity or empathy, and even a tacit consent, with another person’s values and opinions.
As Frank Furedi points out, it seems that in our contemporary public debate the connection between tolerance and judgment has been lost due to our present obsession with being non-judgemental. When the meaning of tolerance has been distorted to such an extent that it actually results in the impossibility of making any reasonable judgement, “tolerance” has ceased to be a virtue. Instead, it has become “the superficial signifier of acceptance of affirmation of anyone and everyone”.
After all, as Furedi remarks, “The act of tolerance demands reflection, restraint and a respect for the right of other people to find their way to their own truth.... The most troubling consequence of the rhetorical transformation of this term has been its disassociation from discrimination and judgement. When tolerance acquires the status of a default response connoting approval, people are protected from troubling themselves with the challenge of engaging with moral dilemmas” (Policy magazine, Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, Winter 2012).
The new approach to “tolerance” is not derived from the presumption that a “tolerant” person should be intellectually modest, because he or she must know that we are always learning from our own mistakes. Nor does such a new meaning imply that tolerance is necessarily the best mechanism to discover the truth.
Rather, the new meaning seems to profess the postmodernist view that since “truth” is always subjective and relative to social context, it is therefore morally wrong to suggest that there is only one possible “truth”, and that we can distinguish the right path from the wrong path, because “all paths are equally right”. That being so, all beliefs, values and lifestyles must be regarded as being equally valid.
As Don A. Carson says in his recent book, The Intolerance of Tolerance (2012), “We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid. Thus we slide from the old tolerance to the new”.
Hence, Carson concludes: “Intolerance is no longer a refusal to allow contrary opinions to say their piece in public, but must be understood to be any questioning or contradicting the view that all opinions are equal in value, that all worldviews have equal worth, that all stances are equally valid.
“To question such postmodernist axioms is by definition intolerant. For such questioning there is no tolerance whatsoever, for it is classed as intolerance and must therefore be condemned. It has become the supreme vice.”
One of the alleged goals of the sort of religious tolerance laws presently introduced in most Australian states is to advance “multicultural democracy”. These tolerance laws are based on a certain “scepticism towards truth claims”, so that any universalistic claims about religion must be privatised as merely the expression of some people’s personal preferences.
However, such laws inevitably lead to a considerable degree of moral relativism and consequent rejection of any objective analysis. And yet these laws, rather than promoting any real or authentic tolerance, may very well fuel further inter-religious strife by creating a climate of fear and intimidation for those desiring greater freedom to express their opinions and concerns.
Indeed, anti-discrimination statutes of this nature seem to operate in terrorem, i.e., by way of threat or intimidation. They can make citizens increasingly reluctant to air their views publicly, because of fears of possible reprisals not only from other citizens but from their own government.
As New Zealand law academic Joel Harrison warns, this can lead to the self-censoring of ideas, ultimately making the state and its secular courts “complicit in a process of legal silencing undertaken by rival minority groups, engaging with them in debates of truth and falsehood, good and evil”. He says, “The court decides essentially theological questions in the process of finding incitement to hatred against persons” (Auckland University Law Review, Vol. 12, 2006).
Ironically, this postmodernist scepticism towards truth claims, which is implied in religious tolerance laws, allows such laws to be easily hijacked by aggrieved minorities and radical activists who claim that they, rather than their beliefs, have been attacked.
The ability of democratic societies to defend their interests is seriously diminished by laws that make citizens reluctant to make critical comments or give warnings about the adverse nature of particular beliefs or lifestyles, however well-based these comments or warnings might be.
This is the particular tragedy of so-called “multicultural societies” which have allowed legislation, underpinned by postmodernist and relativist thinking, to restrict or curtail free speech on some of the most fundamental issues of public morality.
Augusto Zimmermann, LLB, LLM, PhD (Monash), teaches legal theory and constitutional law at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He is also president of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA) and editor of The Western Australian Jurist. He recently published a widely-acclaimed book, Western Legal Theory: Theory, Concepts and Perspectives (2013).
Don A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012). ISBN: 9780802869401.
Frank Furedi, “On tolerance”, Policy magazine (Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies), Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter 2012, pp.30-37.
Joel Harrison, “Truth, civility and religious battlegrounds: The contest between religious vilification laws and freedom of expression”, Auckland University Law Review, Vol. 12, 2006, pp.71-96.