The Tolerance Value Trap

by Richard Butrick (July 2013)

“Tolerance is what defines us.” According to Mayor Bloomberg, in remarks delivered at the 30th annual Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) New York City Awards Dinner, tolerance is a core value of any New Yorker worthy of the name. Forget the “Big Apple” it is the “Big Tolerance” that is the banner of NYC.

We are supposed to worship at the shrine of tolerance. The UN has a Tolerance Day in which all of us – or at least those of us who are enlightened – must pay obeisance to tolerance. Tolerance has become the centerpiece and justification of Political Correctness and its myriad rules. The result is that Western societies are stuffed with intolerance watch dogs and “High” commissions punishing those who trespass against tolerance even if that means riding roughshod over free speech.

The very concept of tolerance implies an operational role for intolerance. If one should be tolerant of XYZ then one should be intolerant of any restriction or criticism or ridicule of XYZ. Otherwise the concept is quite vacuous. If one should be tolerant of XYZ and equally tolerant of any opposition to XYZ then what does it mean to be tolerant?

This is not just a piece of academic semantic gymnastics. It is operationally the case. Those who endorse tolerance of XYZ as a moral mandate are led thereby to be intolerant to any opposition to XYZ. In this regard tolerance is not like such standard values as honesty or integrity. One can hold truthfulness [tolerance] to be a value without holding that one should be untruthful regarding [be intolerant of] any criticism of truthfulness [tolerance].  The same goes for not-cheating/cheating, not-stealing/stealing. (interesting that cheating and stealing do not have single word antonyms). Intolerance is the flip-side of tolerance. President Obama, for example, has repeatedly told us that he will not tolerate those who are intolerant of Islam.

But Tolerance, properly, has to do with the manner in which one holds one’s beliefs about right and wrong or fact and fiction – the intensity or flexibility or lack thereof with which one holds one’s beliefs about capitalism or social justice or abortion or gun control or immigration, etc. Tolerance does not in itself justify any particular value or set of values nor is it inherently good or bad to be flexible or firm in one’s values. Is it inherently good or bad to be tolerant regarding one’s position on cyber-bullying? Zero-tolerance for drinking and driving? Zero-tolerance for kids bringing drugs to schools? Incredibly, an 11-year old student died after an asthma attack because his school's zero-tolerance policy barred him from carrying his inhaler.

Intolerant bastards may be on the right track and tolerant pudding heads may be all wet. Is it good to be flexible or firm? Depends – and that is the point.

A great example of this is the recent protest staged in Sweden, Italy, Ukraine, Belgium, and France  by the Ukraine based Femen group. Here is an account:

Recently members of the Ukrainian-based, global feminist group Femen staged protests across Europe calling for “topless jihad.” While American feminists today are satisfied whipping up outrage about Mitt Romney’s binders and Sandra Fluke’s right to bill taxpayers for her birth control, Femen’s Amazonian warriors dive right in to do battle in a real War on Women being openly waged by Muslim misogynists. Topless jihad – it puts a whole new spin on #MyJihad.

Femen’s in-your-face campaign in defense of Amina is in stark, positive contrast with the West’s usual timid and hypocritical acquiescence of the abuse of women under Islamic oppression. This is how human rights are won and preserved – not by tolerance and “dialogue,” but by fighting for them.

Let me repeat. “This is how human rights are won and preserved – not by tolerance and “dialogue,” but by fighting for them.”

Holding tolerance to be a value in and of itself stifles critical analysis of the values subsumed under tolerance. The tolerance defense is concussive to real value-analysis. It is a dead end diversion and an analysis stopper, or, as Thomas Sowell puts it,  appeal to certain words like ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ “stop people from thinking.“ Tolerance is no more a value than appeasement is a value or respect is a value or “shut up” is a value.

And here is the core argument. We would all be better off we showed more tolerance and respect for the mores and custom of other cultures. What right do we have to elevate our belief system about cultural interaction over those of other societies? All we have done by insisting that our way is the right way is stir up trouble and animosity. Tolerance is the key.

Will we all be better off if we shut down critical analysis of the sacred cows of any belief system about social interaction and social institutions to hard critical analysis?

This thinking has led the ministers of the Church of Tolerance to back anti-blasphemy laws.

President Barack Obama’s top civil rights official repeatedly declined to support religious free speech during a July 27 congressional hearing, despite repeated questioning from Arizona Republican Rep. Trent Franks, who chairs the House’s constitution subcommittee. Tom Perez, the progressive who runs the Justice Department’s civil rights office, refused to answer the questions posed by Franks.

The myrmidons of the Church of Tolerance have zero-tolerance for “hate speech.” The logic is delicious. They would mandate tolerance by backing zero-tolerance blasphemy laws. In fact such laws have the reverse effect of tolerance. In Islamic states where blasphemy laws are in effect they are used to intimidate and persecute non-Islamic faiths. Assyrian and Coptic Christians have suffered greatly and face extermination.

As documented in Freedom House’s special report Policing Belief: the Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights and by other human rights groups, there is no evidence that restricting speech reduces religious intolerance. In fact, the evidence shows that prohibitions on blasphemy actually encourage or justify intolerance and lead to a wide range of human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, arbitrary arrest, torture, and even murder. (Source)

This is not to say that religious tolerance is or is not good or bad in itself. It depends on the religion or what aspect of a religion is being considered. And that is the trap. Instead of opening up a critical analysis of a given religion, the uber-value tolerance is invoked and that is an analysis stopper.

Making tolerance an uber-value has the insidious flip-side of immunizing the values proposed under its banner from scrutiny. If tolerance is held in itself to be a paramount value then the defense of a claim that there should be more tolerance shown for XYZ naturally shifts to an invocation of tolerance itself. The imposition of anti-blasphemy laws under the banner of tolerance is a particularly odious example of the back-shift defense. Like Thomas Sowell’s stop-think words, blasphemy laws amount to the fascist imposition of intolerance – the social imposition of shut-up laws immunizing religion from criticism. Follow that and we will all be back in the Middle Ages muttering incantations to God knows what.

Tolerance is not the issue. The issue is what is or is not to be tolerated.


Dr. Richard Butrick is an American writer who has published in Mind, Philosophy of Science, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic, International Journal of Computer Mathematics among others.


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