Wednesday, December 28, 2005

On Tolerance

A long time ago I saw Karl Popper speak on tolerance. This was before his death, of course, but it was fairly close to it and Popper wasn't at his best. Then there was the strawberry wine I enjoyed before the event. All this makes my recollection of Popper's message tinged with fond memories and light-hearted fuzziness. But I'm pretty sure that he said not to tolerate the intolerant.

Tricky, that whole question. Isn't it usually the intolerant that most benefit from the tolerance of others? The shield of tolerance lets them go on building their edifices which will ultimately ban other beliefs. Yet not to tolerate the intolerant takes away the whole point of tolerance, which to me is to allow peaceful cohabitation. Leben und Leben Lassen.

Religious extremists have been skilled in exploiting the societywide value of tolerance (or of multi-culturalism) in the West. Tolerance has allowed them to continue existing in sub-societies where other Western values such as gender equality are completely ignored. Tolerance allows some religious groups to take their children out of school at a younger age than is otherwise legally required, or it allows these children to be taught biased history. Even the organizing activities of Islamic radicals have benefited from the tolerance of secular nations. Yet if any of these groups came to general power the first thing to be banned would be behaviors that conflict with their values. They would ban tolerance.

Tolerance carries the seeds of its own destruction. What are we to do about this? Popper's answer was to refuse to tolerate intolerance, to make tolerance a reciprocal concept. I will tolerate you if you tolerate me, but if you don't...

There is a nice symmetry to his idea, but its practical applications would mean that we would no longer tolerate anybody very different, because most of those groups are intolerant themselves. My head goes dizzy at this point.

Even the meaning of tolerance is often unclear. Is there a tinge of condescension in tolerance? Do we tolerate other values the same way we tolerate a boil in the butt? Or is tolerance something purer, something respectful and courteous? And does tolerance by a powerless person towards a powerful one matter at all?

I don't know. John Gibson, the author of The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought recently gave a radio interview which revealed his definition of religious tolerance very clearly:

From the November 17 edition of Salem Radio Network's Janet Parshall's America:

GIBSON: The whole point of this is that the tradition, the religious tradition of this country is tolerance, and that the same sense of tolerance that's been granted by the majority to the minority over the years ought to go the other way too. Minorities ought to have the same sense of tolerance about the majority religion -- Christianity -- that they've been granted about their religions over the years.

PARSHALL: Exactly. John, I have to tell you, let me linger for a minute on that word "tolerance." Because first of all, the people who like to promulgate that concept are the worst violators. They cannot tolerate Christianity, as an example.

GIBSON: Absolutely. I know -- I know that.

PARSHALL: And number two, I have to tell you, I don't know when they held this election and decided that tolerance was a transcendent value. I serve a god who, with a finger of fire, wrote, he will have no other gods before him. And he doesn't tolerate sin, which is why he sent his son to the cross, but all of a sudden now, we jump up and down and celebrate the idea of tolerance. I think tolerance means accommodation, but it doesn't necessarily mean acquiescence or wholehearted acceptance.

GIBSON: No, no, no. If you figure that -- listen, we get a little theological here, and it's probably a bit over my head, but I would think if somebody is going to be -- have to answer for following the wrong religion, they're not going to have to answer to me. We know who they're going to have to answer to.


GIBSON: And that's fine. Let 'em. But in the meantime, as long as they're civil and behave, we tolerate the presence of other religions around us without causing trouble, and I think most Americans are fine with that tradition.

PARSHALL: I agree.

GIBSON: In other words, they'd like it in return.

The bolds are mine.

Gibson likes the idea of tolerance as a reciprocal concept, though he believes that the Christian majority has not been tolerated in the past. To put it that way makes Gibson sound ridiculous, and he is. But his point is not ridiculous; it is ominous, because for Gibson tolerance means suffering the presence of the alien infidels, the believers in the false gods, those who will go to hell one day. This is not the tolerance of a compatriot with different beliefs but the tolerance of a commander who has declared a momentary peacefire. It is tolerating the enemy.

And how do you tolerate the enemy?