• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Can we tolerate intolerance?

When people ask the rhetorical question ‘has tolerance gone too far’, what they are saying is that it can be rationed and made available only to those who share our moral universe. Through raising the idea that there can be ‘too much’ tolerance, this virtue is transformed into an indulgence that society can well do without. The association of tolerance with the negative connotation of indulgent behaviour is best captured by that very unattractive term ‘zero tolerance’. When a politician demands zero tolerance, what they are saying is that the slightest concession to being open minded about the issue in question is a marker of moral cowardice.

Zero tolerance and the banning of certain forms of speech through laws on hate speech and incitement of religious hatred has the merit of providing an administrative solution to a political problem. Even at the best of times, tolerance does not come naturally; it is not a sentiment that arises spontaneously in response to beliefs and lifestyles that conflict with our own. People find it difficult to resist the temptation of adopting a double standard and find some persuasive reason for not tolerating someone else’s right to communicate their obnoxious views. Today censorship, which expresses the refusal to tolerate the voicing of someone’s views, is often justified as a necessary measures for protecting individuals and groups from the harm of intolerance. The claim that intolerance is best countered with more intolerance communicates the feeble status that society assigns to real tolerance.

Paradoxically, calls for intolerance towards the intolerant coincide with a growing tendency to represent tolerant as a soft option: one which avoids real problems and threats. This was the meaning that prime minister David Cameron attached to it when, in a reference to Islamic terrorism, he stated that ‘frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism’. But what is ‘passive tolerance’? Tolerance is anything but passive. Tolerance requires courage, conviction and a commitment to freedom – key characteristics of a confident and active public ethos. Tolerance upholds freedom of conscience and individual autonomy. It affirms the principle of non-interference in people’s inner lives, in their adherence to certain beliefs and opinions. And, so long as an act does not harm others or violate their moral autonomy, tolerance also demands no constraints on behaviour that is related to the exercise of individual autonomy.

One reason why Cameron can use the term ‘passive tolerance’ is because, in recent decades, tolerance has been redefined as a polite gesture of non-judgmentalism. In official documents and school texts, tolerance is used as a desirable character trait, rather than as a way of responding to beliefs and views with which one disagrees. Indeed, frequently school texts on tolerance virtually treat it as synonymous with non-judgmentalism. So, instead of serving as a way of responding to differences of views, tolerance has become a way of not taking them seriously.

When tolerance is represented as a form of detached indifference, or as a gesture connoting mechanical acceptance, it becomes a vice rather than a virtue. Tolerance necessarily involves an act of judgment. According to the classical liberal outlook, tolerance involved an act of judgment and discrimination; but judgment did not serve as a prelude to censoring another person’s wrong opinion, because tolerance demands respect for people’s right to hold beliefs in accordance with their conscience.

The capacity to tolerate views of which one disapproves in based on the conviction that this virtue provides an opportunity for testing out ideas and confronting ethical dilemmas. Interference with individual beliefs and opinions disrupts the creative dynamic of the intellectual and moral development of society. From this standpoint, tolerance of beliefs that we really hate is a very small price to pay for society’s intellectual and moral development.

One final point. Tolerance is a virtue because it takes people very seriously. It recognises that, without allowing people the freedom to err, society will find it difficult to find its way to the truth.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Frank Furedi is professor of Sociology at the University of Kent. His latest book ‘On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence’ is published by Continuum. He is speaking at the debate Has tolerance gone too far? on Sunday 30 October.

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