How to Defend Tolerance

Police try to block counter-protesters of the ‘Free Speech’ Rally on August 19, 2017, in Boston. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In historical terms, tolerance is a relatively recent invention. Until the 16th and 17th centuries, few people bothered to think about the value of tolerance. In fact, it was perceived as a virtue to be intolerant of dissenters. When it came to religious dissenters, it was considered a duty to persecute them as a threat to the political order and the spiritual health of society. Believers were obliged to eradicate heretics and blasphemers; otherwise they, and their communities, risked becoming targets of God’s wrath.

This understanding started to change in the aftermath of the wars of religion in Europe. On a pragmatic level, there was an urgent need for Protestants and Catholics to work out ways to live together in peace. This resulted in a regime of religious coexistence with limited tolerance. Religious minorities were allowed to gather outside of town to hold their worship services, or they established so-called Schuilkerk, secret houses of worship in private homes that later paved the way for the separation of public and protected private spaces.

Doubts about the certainty of our knowledge also led to greater tolerance of other beliefs and opinions. Europeans travelled to faraway places and saw that people there were guided by different approaches to life. This was reinforced by a growing skepticism about truth. To those epistemic arguments, John Stuart Mill added that increased toleration and exposure to competing ideas would help the tolerant—would lead, that is, to better societies and better individuals. On the Millian view, people would experience greater individual satisfaction when they could choose their beliefs for themselves and take responsibility for the choices they make.

The case for tolerance that grew out of this story once seemed settled. But no more. Each day brings news of intolerance toward speakers on university campuses in the Anglo-Saxon world. There are many reasons for this, but one fundamental challenge is that tolerance in many ways goes against human nature. We are not born tolerant; it’s something we have to learn.

Peter Balint, a senior lecturer in international and political studies at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia, examines the deeper arguments of critics of tolerance. His new book defends toleration as an effective and respectable tool to manage diversity in a liberal democracy. Respecting Toleration: Traditional Liberalism and Contemporary Diversity focuses on three forces in our world that push against tolerance: the multicultural challenge, the despotism challenge, and the neutrality challenge.

The multiculturalists contend that the liberal approach to diversity based on neutrality and tolerance has failed because it doesn’t involve positive respect for or recognition of minorities. Balint posits that if we care about people living their lives as they see fit and doing the things they want to do within the framework of the law, then state neutrality is the best possible means toward that end. The respect-and-recognition approach, moreover, risks placing in jeopardy vulnerable minorities within minorities (a non-veiling Muslim woman, for example, in an enclave of Muslims whose prominent spokesmen interpret the Quran as requiring that women wear the hijab).

The defenders of despotism—many of whom are sophisticates and disclaim that that is what they are defending—hold the view that tolerance is an outdated concept that a diverse society based on equality needs to move beyond. As the Swiss-born academic Tariq Ramadan puts it: “Toleration is intellectual charity on the part of the powerful . . . and we must get beyond it. When standing on equal footing, one does not expect to be merely tolerated or grudgingly accepted.”

Ramadan is referring to a classical definition of tolerance that involves objection to something, the power to interfere, and finally, the withholding of that power. Balint refutes this definition by saying that toleration can involve power and objection, but it’s not always the case. Liberal states quite often exercise tolerance without having any objections; and even if they do object, their practice of restraining themselves from interference is better than the alternatives. Tolerance on behalf of the state may involve respect, indifference, and forbearance. Balint makes a distinction between a general, permissive practice of tolerance and specific acts of forbearance.

Finally, those offering the neutrality challenge insist that tolerance has been superseded by, or is incompatible with, liberal neutrality, which implies that the state does not judge ways of life in society. These liberal critics of tolerance posit that the state should strive for neutrality, and if it does, tolerance is rendered at best irrelevant. Balint replies that tolerance and neutrality need to be understood as range concepts—that is, they operate on a continuum, so that these are always matters of degree. The things the state should be neutral about are going to be narrower than the things the state should tolerate. Tolerance and neutrality are therefore perfectly compatible with one another. The latter does not exclude the former.

To make clear that tolerance isn’t superseded by neutrality, Balint provides several examples. Take the Islamist party Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which nonviolently campaigns for a caliphate; a political party in the Netherlands that is against equal rights for women; a Communist Party that wants to get rid of liberal democracy and liquidate the right to private property; or a White Aryan Church that propagates racism and discrimination against nonwhite people. The state might tolerate these groups, but that doesn’t mean that the state should be neutral toward them.

Balint rightly says that it is intolerance (not tolerance) that needs justification in a modern liberal democracy. We demand proper and weighty reasons for governments or people to negatively interfere in the lives of others. We have a right to be in control of our own lives. It is, as Balint stresses, “about a fundamental freedom to live one’s life as one sees fit.” He thus makes the case for a freedom-centered approach to toleration, defending liberal toleration as the best way to accommodate diversity in today’s liberal democracies. This goes for both the state and its citizens.

A laudable effort is made here to defend tolerance as a tool to promote social change and individual freedom—all in the name of creating as much space as possible for a diversity of ways of life. But the author would have served his case better with a more robust and consistent defense of freedom, especially freedom of speech. Diversity of culture, ethnicity and religion—which is to say, diversity of ways of life—is closely connected to diversity of opinions and speech. Hence a key challenge to free speech comes from politicians and civil society groups who celebrate diversity of cultures and ways of life, but turn around and denounce diversity of speech and opinion.

Balint doesn’t accept the distinction between words and deeds that throughout history has been crucially important for the cultivation of freedom and tolerance. He rebuts the thesis that intolerance should be understood as curtailing agency, because it makes it difficult to identify as intolerant symbolic acts such as desecrating a religious text or knocking down a religious symbol. These kinds of symbolic manifestations do not prevent anybody from doing what they want but, according to Balint, they are still expressions of intolerance.

He prefers to define tolerance as “negative interference,” which includes more than criminalization, bans, violence, threats, and intimidation. In doing so, he broadens the scope of what may be perceived as intolerant, and he blurs the line between speech and action. This, in turn, opens the door to the legitimization of a wide range of restrictions on speech like Bible- burning, racist speech, or other utterances that may be deemed psychologically harmful. In short, he invites limitations on the very freedom that he says he want to promote.

Desecrating a religious text is of course outrageous, though I am not sure if it is by definition an act of intolerance. Consider the following example: Your family has been killed in a terrorist attack. The perpetrators justify their crime with references to a holy book. To express your contempt for the crime, you desecrate a copy of that holy book. You burn it or tear it to pieces. Would that be an expression of intolerance? Does it prevent believers from exercising their faith? Does it cause physical harm to anyone?

And how would Balint define the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot’s performance inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012? The Russian Orthodox clergy qualified it as a sacrilege—that is, an act of intolerance—while the women said their protest performance was directed at the Orthodox Church leaders’ support for Vladimir Putin during the election campaign. Three members of Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” but Amnesty International designated the women as prisoners of conscience.

There is of course a thin line between expressive, intolerant acts that are unlikely to, or are not intended to, coerce, as against acts that are both expressive and coercive, like hanging a noose outside a black student’s dorm.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the author is too quick to write off the definition of intolerance as curtailing agency—that is, strictly defining it as preventing others from doing what they have a legitimate right to do. Such a definition would strengthen Balint’s own case for freedom with a hands-off approach based on a culturally thin state.

In general, Balint hesitates to set forth boundaries. He wishes, he says, to focus on the “application of toleration to contemporary diversity” not the limits of toleration. Only briefly are the limits addressed, and to sketch them out he identifies two types. The first limit on toleration is in line with the harm principle and refers to speech and actions that impede other people’s freedom. The second points to considerations of security, welfare, equality of opportunity, and efficiency.

The harm principle is familiar. Let’s consider the second boundary in greater detail: the fact that tolerance needs to be balanced against other considerations. Balint says that justice in spite of freedom of conscience and association may need protection. The limit in this case depends on what sort of threat to justice is posed. Numbers and intensity matter. He provides the following example: A lonely old neo-Nazi is ignored, but a larger resurgence of anti-Semitism is tackled head-on. It involves forbearance of a xenophobic and racist ideology up until it becomes threatening.

This way of reasoning is problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, what does tackling head-on mean? Probably criminalization and some kind of law enforcement. If that’s the case, then we need to determine where to draw the line. Is it only anti-Semitic acts that should be criminalized, or should anti-Semitic speech be criminalized as well? And what kind of speech should a ban cover? All speech, or just speech that incites violence? How tolerant should we of the intolerant?

It seems that the aforementioned distinction between words and deeds would have provided some guidance. A couple of years ago, Germany’s domestic intelligence published a report revealing that there were 500 more extreme Right groups in 2015 than there were in 2014, and there was a 42 percent increase in violent acts by rightwing extremists over that same period. This in spite of the fact that Germany as a militant democracy has the toughest laws in Europe against racist and xenophobic speech.

A study by two Norwegian researchers on the link between extremist rightwing violence and limitations on free speech in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden suggested, similarly, that an environment where extremist speech was filtered out may well have increased the risk of extremist violence. Sweden has a tougher law when it comes to extremist rightwing speech than the other two have, yet more rightwing Swedes committed acts of violence than did their counterparts in Norway or Denmark. This indicates that there is no clear-cut link between evil words and evil deeds.

 Second, the problem with criminalizing hate speech as an expression of intolerance is that the law isn’t the most effective way to fight the sentiments driving this kind of speech. Civil society does that far better than the courts. (At least this is true in liberal democracies; in fact hate speech legislation in nondemocratic countries is usually used to target minorities.)

To sum up: Balint makes a persuasive case for tolerance as a tool to manage diversity, both as a relationship between the state and its citizens and among citizens themselves. He is right that a freedom-centered approach creates the most space for individuals to live their lives as they see fit. But the lack of a comprehensive discussion of the boundaries of toleration and disregard of the decisive role played by the distinction between words and deeds in advancing freedom weaken his case.

Reader Discussion

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on August 24, 2017 at 12:45:29 pm

Until the 16th and 17th centuries, few people bothered to think about the value of tolerance. In fact, it was perceived as a virtue to be intolerant of dissenters. When it came to religious dissenters, it was considered a duty to persecute them as a threat to the political order and the spiritual health of society. Believers were obliged to eradicate heretics and blasphemers; otherwise they, and their communities, risked becoming targets of God’s wrath.

Circa 259-232 BCE, India’s King Asoka issued edicts, engraved on rock monuments, promoting religious freedom and pluralism:

• All religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart. Rock Edict Nb7 (S. Dhammika)

• Contact [between religions] is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-Servant-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions. Rock Edict Nb12 (S. Dhammika)

Likewise, the Roman Republic tended to tolerate the religions practices by its citizens--with some notable exception:

• In 186-87 BCE the Roman Senate restricted Bacchanals, or ecstatic rites celebrated in honor of Dionysus. Many men and women were imprisoned, and more executed, as a result. Livy, History of Rome, Book XXXIX.

• Druidic practices—allegedly including human sacrifice—were banned by a prescript of Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), by the Senate under Tiberius (14-37 CE), and by Claudius (41-54 CE).

• In 14 CE Tiberius drafted Jews of military age into the military, and banned Jews from Rome on pain of lifelong slavery. Claudius continued the ban. The Jewish-Roman Wars raged on and off from 66-136 CE. In 70 CE practicing Jews were subject to the Jewish Tax, and in 135 CE they were banned from Jerusalem except one day per year.

Athenagoras wrote his “Plea for Christians” to the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus (ca. 175 AD). In the Plea, Athenagoras argues that a Roman magistrate should seek to promote an upright citizenry that refrains from evil, and that civic virtue requires a genuine “fear of the divine.” In order to have a genuine fear of the deity, Athenagoras writes, “It is necessary for all men to venerate as gods those whom they wish.” In other words, civic virtue requires religious toleration.

Tertullian echoed Athenagoras’ argument in his Apology (ca. 197–198 AD), where he writes that without free choice of worship, religious practice becomes incapable of fostering civic virtue and imperial pride. In a letter to a proconsul of Carthage in 212 AD (Ad Scapulam), he argues: “It is a human right (humani iuris) and a natural power or natural privilege (naturalis potestatis) that one should worship whatever he intends (quod putaverit colere); the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another.” In short, Tertullian argues that religious belief and practice should not be coerced and that the right of their free exercise is natural, preceding the state and not determined by it.

Tertullian quotes Genesis 1:26–27, which speaks of human beings as free and made in the image and likeness of God, and understands free will to be the clearest sign of that resemblance.

In 303 Galerius issued his Edict against the Christians. But Lactantius argued that religion was not simply a matter of ritual and ceremony, but of interior disposition. Religion must be dealt with by words and not by violence, he wrote, since it pertains to the will: “The worship of God . . . requires full commitment and faith. For how will God love the worshipper if he himself is not loved by him, or grant to the petitioner whatever he asks when he draws near and offers his prayer without sincerity or reverence. But they [the Romans], when they come to offer sacrifice, offer to their gods nothing from within, nothing of themselves, no innocence of mind, no reverence, no awe.” Lactantius would become tutor to the son of Constantine and write the Divine Institutes (311?), which were read aloud in Constantine’s presence.

In 311, Galerius—on his deathbed—declared an end to religious persecutions and a resumption of religious toleration. And in 313, Constantine I, ruler of the Western Roman Empire, and Licinius, ruler of the Eastern Empire (a/k/a the Balkans) met in Milan and agreed to refrain from persecuting people on the basis of religion:

When you see that this has been granted to [Christians] by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity of any religion.

"Edict of Milan", Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De Mortibus Persecutorum), ch. 48. opera, ed. 0. F. Fritzsche, II, p 288 sq. (Bibl Patr. Ecc. Lat. XI) Admittedly, Constantine and Licinius may have been motivated by the desire to elicit the Christians’ support in their (eventually successful) war against Maximinus Daia, rather than a sincere love of tolerance.

From 364-375, Valentin I (Valentian the Great) promoted religious toleration. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that "he kept a middle course between the different sects of religion; and never troubled any one, nor issued any orders in favour of one kind of worship or another; nor did he promulgate any threatening edicts to bow down the necks of his subjects to the form of worship to which he himself was inclined; but he left these parties just as he found them, without making any alterations."

In 379 Gregory of Nyssa condemned the institution of slavery as reflecting a wrongful difference in status.

But tolerance was replaced with state-enforced Christianity in 380 by the Edict of Thessalonica.

Circa 523-538, Cassiodorus—effectively the prime minister of the Ostrogoths—argued for defending Jews: defending synagogues and punishing those who burn them. And from 590-604, Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) defended the autonomy of Jews, and called on Christians to defend them.

Finally, in 1215, Magna Carta declared that "the English church shall be free [from government interference], and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired," and that church officials may exercise "freedom of elections" to pick their leaders. (Admittedly, this freedom may have been honored as much in the breach as in the practice: A writ from Henry II to the electors of a bishopric in Winchester stated "I order you to hold a free election, but forbid you to elect anyone but Richard my clerk.")

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on August 24, 2017 at 13:31:33 pm

The respect-and-recognition approach, moreover, risks placing in jeopardy vulnerable minorities within minorities (a non-veiling Muslim woman, for example, in an enclave of Muslims whose prominent spokesmen interpret the Quran as requiring that women wear the hijab).

I attended a lecture by Kevin “Seamus” Hasson about his founding of The Becket Fund. He claimed that the fund existed to defend freedom of conscience, and illustrated its mission with a reference to some obscure Quaker who endured abuse for following her faith’s mission and proselytizing in colonial Massachusetts.

I was scratching my head. History is full of stories of heroes of conscience: Moses and the Old Testament figures, Socrates, Thoreau, MLK, Sakharov, Mandela…. Why pick this obscure figure?

Then it hit me: All these heroes of conscience argued for the right to follow conscience to deviate from prevailing authorities. The Becket Fund exists solely to defend the rights of people to conform to authorities, even when opposed by other authorities.

So I told Hasson about a legal problem experienced by a friend of mine. He had been arrested for acting in accordance to what he believed to be divine intervention, even though it contradicted the practices of his own professed faith (and, apparently, legal authorities). He had been arrested in Jerusalem roughly 2000 years ago. Would The Becket Fund be willing to take his case—or would the Fund be more likely to take the side of the Sanhedrin who argued, with the support of Jewish law, that Jesus had wrongfully worked on the Sabbath and blasphemed by hinting at his own divinity?

Hasson declined to answer, but I’d kick in my two cents: I tend to favor the Enlightenment idea of equality of individuals before law. This was the idea vindicated by Employment Division v. Smith. Individuals are free to accord whatever respect to groups and group norms they care to, or to withhold that respect, but it is not government’s job to discriminate on the basis of group affiliation. Thus, if we have a law that compels people to report child abuse when they learn about it, then the duty falls equally on journalists who want to protect a source and on priests that want to hold confession sacrosanct. If we have a law that requires newly-renovated buildings to install elevators for the benefit of people with disabilities, that law applies even to Amish people and nuns who have taken a vow to shun the use of such conveniences. If we have a law against using peyote, that law applies equally to people who use peyote in religious ceremonies.

Now, maybe we should NOT have such laws. But we should decide to have such laws, or not, uniformly.

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on August 24, 2017 at 20:59:08 pm


Great stuff!

See what I mean about you being a "myth" maker - in this case, a myth destroyer.

Very sensible!

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.