The traditional liberal call that we should extend tolerance to our opponents has been replaced by a demand for recognition and acceptance that is paradoxically intolerant towards those who do not conform.
In a liberal state, heterogeneity is encouraged by distinguishing public from private spaces, an idea that originated in the seventeenth century, when Thomas Hobbes appealed to it in an attempt to solve political turmoil. John Locke drew on this principle when he advocated religious toleration and J. S. Mill was inspired by it when he proposed the harm principle as a tool for maximising toleration. The goal was ultimately always the same: to use toleration to limit the possibility of violent political conflict.
Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan during the English Civil War, a time of intense political turmoil. The central aim of the text is to ensure an end to conflict and create a model of peace and stability. Hobbes makes two central claims. First, he transfers authority from the divine into the human realm, arguing that sovereigns gain their authority from their citizens, as opposed to from god. By placing the authority of the state in the hands of citizens through a contractual arrangement with the sovereign, this opened the door to the development of a state that would be forced to tolerate dissent to a far greater extent than Hobbes himself envisioned. Second, despite Hobbes’ distinctly authoritarian vision—he argues that the citizenry should only able to challenge the sovereign when their lives were threatened—he still envisaged that citizens should be able to rebel against their sovereign when that sovereign could no longer protect them.
This idea that citizens could contest their sovereign’s decisions evolved considerably in the work of John Locke. For Locke, not only was it legitimate for citizens to take measures to secure their personal safety, but also to protect their right to their personal beliefs. Locke believed that not only was the state ineffective in suppressing personal beliefs, but it was fundamentally wrong to attempt to do so.
Locke argued that, even if the state could force outward conformity with the true religion, it could never make an individual truly believe in it. It could only therefore coerce false professions of belief. Toleration of differences in belief is necessary because it is impossible to regulate the contents of people’s minds and souls. Locke also argued that the sovereign cannot possibly know whether his religious belief represents the true word of god, therefore any attempt to force his subjects to obey religious prescriptions is inappropriate as it is always done from a position of ignorance.
Mill’s harm principle in On Liberty is predicated upon the belief that, unless someone is physically harmed by someone else’s speech, that speech should be allowed. Mill imagines an angry mob assembling outside a corn dealer’s house and a ringleader whipping them up into a frenzy, urging them to drag out the dealer and his family and make them suffer. This direct incitement to immediate violence is the example Mill uses to illustrate what he terms violent speech. He argues that this is the only kind of speech that should be stopped. There is no mention here of mental anguish, only actual threat of bodily harm.
Mill goes further than Locke here. Locke’s argument in favour of tolerance rests on the practical impossibility of convincing people to believe things through force and in the fact that our own knowledge may be deficient. Mill, on the other hand, offers positive reasons as to why we should tolerate others. He argues that diversity of opinions and the marketplace of ideas allow us to revise dead dogmas: i.e. truths that go unquestioned but that may be false. This not only creates a lively, open society but also offers us the best chance of arriving at truth, since it allows our opinions to be continually tried and tested.
Toleration, then, used to mean freedom of thought but, recently, pleas for toleration have been replaced by a demand for recognition and acceptance, predicated upon the argument that toleration is insufficient to create a truly fair and inclusive society. We tolerate something—as opposed to accept it—when we disapprove of it, but believe that those who practice or advocate it should not be ostracised. Acceptance and recognition, by contrast, involve celebration, not merely toleration. This can create a rebound effect, which threatens the value of toleration itself.
Nowhere is the disappearance of toleration more keenly felt than in the debate over gender identity. There have been demands for the recognition of every possible gender. Any questioning of self-defined gender identities exposes the questioner to the risk of being cancelled or fired. Some have even called for access to jobs to be predicated upon subscribing to certain beliefs on a wide range of issues.
The motivation for cancelling others is to ensure that people change their views. This demand for the recognition of people who identify in a certain way is destroying traditional liberal tolerance of divergent views.
Locke’s critique of the attempts to stifle dissenting religious views is still highly relevant today. Cancel culture cannot change people’s minds, but only coerce them to parrot beliefs that are not theirs. The silencing of opposing voices may seem like a victory for those who demand acceptance and recognition but, in reality, they are not gaining the true believers in their cause that they will need in order to create a truly accepting society. If you attempt to force your views upon people, you will simply end up with Mill’s dreaded dead dogmas: hollow truths that buckle and crack the moment they are challenged. This is why advocating toleration is much more effective than attempting to force acceptance. If your arguments are correct, over time they will naturally emerge as the strongest ideas, creating a durable consensus that will be far more meaningful than anything you will achieve by attempting to use an online army to shame people into paying lip service to what is actually a minority viewpoint.
Hobbes wanted to enforce a relatively rigid and authoritarian contractual agreement between citizens and the state—with just one escape clause. In order to avoid a modern Leviathan that needs to be tamed, we must pursue toleration, not forced agreement. A humility at our own lack of knowledge should inform a debate that tolerates a wide range of views. The alternative is either the anarchic nightmare Hobbes sought to avoid or the solution that Hobbes proposed—a solution that we should all fear.