Has tolerance gone too far?

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Sunday 30 October, Royal College of Art, London


Tolerance is a virtue, except when it isn’t. Critics of ‘the permissive society’ have long warned against the idea that anything goes, and even championed ‘zero tolerance’ policing. But many self-styled liberals are just as intolerant when it comes to ‘hate speech’ – for example the homophobic rants of the Westboro Baptist Church in the US, or misogynist rap lyrics – or the burqa, regarded as a symbol of women’s oppression. And the one thing many won’t tolerate is the intolerance of others. But do we confuse tolerance with respect and approval? Can we uphold the idea of tolerance while maintaining the right to criticise and judge rather than succumbing to moral relativism?

The tradition of tolerance – through John Locke, Voltaire, Kant and JS Mill – emphasised the importance of moral independence, not relativism. Locke tolerated what you thought because no one could ever establish tyranny in your heart. Mill also tolerated what you did – so long as it did not harm others. And crucially he valued the existence in society of views and opinions he found objectionable – their existence vital to the pursuit of truths which we should not assume we know. Tolerance, in this sense, was a response to a world made uncertain by the erosion of moral absolutes and conventional prejudices. As Voltaire wrote in his Essay on Tolerance: ‘Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too’. Today, by contrast, the big issue is where the limits of tolerance should be. Defining the concept of harm to include subjective harm is one way of tightening those limits: society should not tolerate the emotional distress caused by offensive speech. Some even argue we should not tolerate acts which harm only ourselves: banning smoking; curbing binge drinking; warning against ‘junk’ foods. And, in the name of protecting tolerant societies from their enemies, the war on terror has justified intolerant measures – laws against incitement to terrorism or religious hatred – in many countries. Is this is a pragmatic limitation, without which tolerance would be just a naive ideal, or is it simply political censorship? What does tolerance mean today?

If we allow tolerance to mean being non-judgemental, do we risk becoming indulgent, indifferent even? Does the concept of ‘zero tolerance’ – often deployed in defence of those at risk of harm – mask an unwillingness to debate and argue? Should we approach the question of tolerance from the standpoint of my freedom to act, or your need for security? Can we afford to be tolerant of those who are themselves intolerant?  Can we afford to tolerate other people making mistakes along the way to getting it right? Is tolerating the vulgar, the offensive, the shocking, not, in part, the price of liberty? Or are such concepts vain and dangerous in today’s very uncertain world?

Christopher Caldwell

senior editor, Weekly Standard; columnist, Financial Times; author, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: immigration, Islam and the West

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What’s Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Professor Anna Elisabetta Galeotti
chair of political philosophy, University of Piemonte Orienatale in Vercelli; author, Toleration as Recognition

GM Tamás
visiting professor, Central European University; author, Les Idoles de la Tribu

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination