“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance,” writes Karl Popper in his 1945 masterwork, The Open Society and its Enemies. Liberals’ blindness to the implications of this paradox poses a problem that may prove fatal to the grand Enlightenment project of creating a society in which individual freedom can flourish.
At its most basic, tolerance is the principle that no one—no state, religion or party—can claim jurisdiction over someone else’s mind. First championed by John Locke, this radical idea provided a solution to the bitter sectarian conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants that plagued early modern Europe for centuries. Locke’s arguments showed that neither Protestants nor Catholics were ever justified in using force against the other simply because they thought themselves true believers and their opponents heathens.
In an ideal, tolerant society, everyone—no matter their race, religion or creed—can peacefully coexist, accepting that their fellow citizens may have different beliefs, values and views about the good life. Such tolerant citizens recognise that a claim to know the truth never justifies imposing one’s views on others by force.
Tolerance underpins any free society. It means that all citizens accept that each person has a right to their own views on religion, politics, morality or anything else. To tolerate one’s fellow citizen, one doesn’t have to agree with them; one must, however, believe in their right to think as they please and to express those thoughts.
But recently western liberals have been taking the concept to dangerous extremes. Parasitic on the ideal of tolerance is the unworthy liberal affect of cringing self-doubt.
Such civilisational guilt manifests everywhere. We see it in much of the response to recent Islamist terror attacks in France, which, rather than condemning the extremists, blames the victim for its culture of secularism (maybe France was asking for it by wearing such a short skirt?). It manifests in the endless introspection of the Critical Social Justice scholarship that has swept through academia over the past two decades, and seeks to problematise and deconstruct our language, culture and institutions far more than it tries to understand, preserve or improve them. And it is perhaps best exemplified by bestsellers like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Despite its notoriously shallow arguments, the anti-racism handbook has sold almost a million copies since 2018 because, as Coleman Hughes puts it, of DiAngelo’s “masterful exploitation of white guilt.” Douglas Murray sums up this phenomenon as the “tyranny of guilt”—our unfortunate tendency in the west to “[judge] ourselves by our worst moments and everyone else by their best.”
So where are we going wrong? Why does the west have so little faith in itself and its ideals? Why has western liberalism become so unmoored from the passion of its founders?
Tolerance Ad Absurdum
The problem stems from misinterpreting what it means to be tolerant. As Nick Cohen writes: “At its heart is a distinction with a difference worth fighting over: the line between ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect.’” Tolerance means not coercing, attacking or persecuting people because of their views. But it does not mean having to respect all viewpoints or equivocating as to one’s own.
The claim that all views, cultures or religions have a right to respect is absurd. Should an astrophysicist respect the view of a flat-earther? Would we trust a doctor who thinks illness is caused by an imbalance in the vapours? The same is true of cultures. Must we respect as equally valid cultures that practice FGM, human sacrifice or slavery? As for religion, requiring us to respect all faiths ends in the stifling authoritarian orthodoxies of blasphemy laws. There is even a sinister totalitarian undertone to this demand because it seeks to police our minds—we can no more be forced to respect than to love. Without the freedom to choose, neither respect nor love means anything.
Liberals must get over their queasiness about standing up for what they believe in. Liberal values—tolerance, individual liberty, freedom of speech, women’s and minority rights—are the best values we know of. As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have written, liberalism has “produced the freest, most equal societies, with the least suffering and oppression, the world has ever known.” These are our values, and they are worth fighting for. They also need to be fought for, firmly and forthrightly, because not everyone shares them.
Today, western liberalism faces threats from both within and without. Woke identitarians threaten to re-racialise our politics, while outrage mobs and Islamist extremists alike threaten our freedom of speech. And as the west reels from the economic and political fallout of the pandemic, paralysed by introspection at the wrongs of its past, authoritarian China gains ever more power, while committing very real atrocities in the present.
Liberals favour unlimited tolerance at their own peril—it doesn’t matter what your values are if those values stop you from standing up for yourself. No recent show has illustrated this better than Game of Thrones. In season 1, episode 6, the sellsword Bronn faces the highborn knight Ser Vardis in a ritual fight to the death. Vardis wears traditional plate armour, while Bronn remains unarmed for greater agility. Bronn dances around the hall, skilfully evading the knight’s predictable, lunging attacks. As he tires, Ser Vardis becomes increasingly clumsy and panicked—this isn’t how noble battles are supposed to be fought. His breathing ragged, he launches a final, desperate charge. Bronn sidesteps him easily and cuts Ser Vardis down. Lady Lysa Arryn excoriates Bronn for his underhand tactics: “You don’t fight with honour!” “No,” Bronn replies calmly, gesturing at Vardis’s body, “he did.”
If liberals cannot shake off their self-doubt they will be forever pushed around by intolerant ideologues. Tolerance is a noble virtue that should be championed boldly and unequivocally. And we must take a stand against the intolerant because, if it is not reciprocated, tolerance is necessarily self-destructive. In a fight to the death, if you hold yourself to higher standards than your opponent, your lofty principles will get you killed. As long as liberals fail to recognise this, they risk consigning liberalism to the same fate as Ser Vardis: noble, self-righteous—and dead.
Principles are nothing without the passion to stand up for them. Liberal ideals are as vital as ever. Liberals must muster the self-belief and courage to defend them. Because if liberals won’t fight to preserve freedom of speech, tolerance and individual liberty, then who will?
What a brilliant piece. Illuminating and pertinent!
Good article! Only thing I wish we heard more of was how to be *intolerant*. As strange as that sounds, I think that’s what we often miss out on in conversations about the paradox of tolerance. Yes, obviously, unfettered tolerance will only lead to the intolerant gaining power. So it logically follows then that some degree of intolerance is necessary to prevent those intolerant from practicing their intolerance. And in doing so, we have to understand that behaving “intolerantly” out of self-defense is not the same as being intolerant. BUT, I think the crux of the issue lies in to what degree and HOW we are intolerant. For example, in the US, there was a small wave of “punch a nazi” support going around, where the policy in question advocated punching a nazi if ever anyone saw one. This, in my eyes, is an example of intolerance going too extremely… Read more »
I’m surprised to see the author studies in Amsterdam yet thinks Locke was the first to champion tolerance. Locke was heavily influenced by his Dutch contemporary who said it first, said it better, and in the process touched off the Enlightenment.
Yup. Whitey’s sense of fairness is one of his nicest points, but he has turned it into a pathology. He feels the need to feel guilty for everyone else’s failings.
Of course children brought up in schools that proudly boast of their “zero tolerance” policies for their protection, and likewise the politicians that boast of same (how can you run for office on a platform of 27% tolerance for crime? No, ZERO TOLERANCE! Even if it is a functional impossibility! That’s what gets the votes), well they’re going to grow up to have a profoundly warped idea of tolerance, aren’t they?
Good article with interesting points. Especially the “tolerance” vs “respect” issue. My only quibble is the use of a Game Of Thrones reference. I just find it interesting that you use a show about an honor society to make a point about how to defend our enlightenment post-honor liberal society. I get that we can’t fight zero sum games by rules that our opponents don’t follow, but at some point you DO have to be willing to die or at least fail on principle. My problem with the “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” sentiment is that it works both ways. Trump is now destroying our norms with his delegitimizing attacks on our institutions. Even if he’s only doing it from a self preservation instinct as opposed to ideological one, like the “woke”, (who are also attacking institutions as you point out.) I don’t even know what the solution… Read more »