In this article, Maria Steen questions how tolerant is our society when one questions certain assumptions and thinks in a different way. Originally published in The Irish Times (24th August 2019) and re-produced here with permission.
It is testament to the fact that so little has happened this August that column inches in a number of major newspapers have been devoted to what, by any standards, was a complete non-story: the attendance at a conservative political conference in Washington, DC, of the president of Young Fine Gael.
Joining the chorus on this matter, Irish Times columnist Una Mullally weighed in. The most interesting aspect of her argument was her criticism of those who suggested that the invective being directed towards this young man was evidence of intolerance from the political left.
This, she said, was a “beloved trope” of those on the right: it inverts right-wing intolerance and “positions intolerance of intolerance as an attack on tolerance itself”.
There is little credit to be obtained from complying with an ethical system that does nothing more than authorise what one would want to do anyway
Those who describe themselves as liberal almost invariably hold up tolerance as an important component of their system of ethics. What does this mean? The word comes from the Latin verb tolerare, which means to bear or endure. We endure that which we do not like. What we like we have no need to tolerate.
Tolerance as a virtue has frequently been invoked in the culture wars over the past four decades and almost always by those espousing a secular liberal viewpoint. The general argument boils down to this: you may not like what I do/think/say but a pluralist society requires that you tolerate me and my actions/thoughts/views.
Most self-described liberals have no need to tolerate abortion, for example, as they view this as a freedom to be celebrated, as we saw in the grounds of Dublin Castle last year. So when liberals call for tolerance, what is it that they themselves are required to tolerate?
It is reasonably clear that Catholics, for example, are expected to tolerate a great many things that they believe to be contrary to the moral law. But that is just them. What about the liberals?
It seems to me that it is an essential aspect of any ethics system worthy of the name that it provides a restraint not merely on others but on one’s own behaviour. If this element is absent then what is put forward as ethics is merely a cover for one’s own personal preferences – indeed it becomes a tyrant’s manifesto. Certainly, there is little credit to be obtained from complying with an ethical system that does nothing more than authorise what one would want to do anyway.
If tolerance were a significant organising ethical principle it would require those who espouse it to put up with views that they disagree with. However, in a neat semantic trick, it is instead asserted that the views of which liberals do not approve are themselves intolerant, and therefore do not need to be tolerated. Indeed they should not be tolerated.
Tolerance, in fact, actually requires that they not be tolerated. And so the circle is squared and what might have seemed to be a restraint in fact turns out to be a reinforcement of liberals’ ethical entitlement – or even duty – not to have to put up with ideas with which they disagree.
What it does require is that one act towards him out of love, and treat him with dignity and respect
Because it is right-thinking liberals who get to decide what speech is intolerant – and therefore exists outside the sphere of protection that tolerance requires – the result, in practical terms, is that the ethic of tolerance provides no restraint on liberals at all. It is only a restraint on the actions, speech and, ultimately, thought of their political opponents. In short, it is no ethic at all. It amounts to a thinly-veiled attempt to avoid what would otherwise be an obvious charge of hypocrisy.
For those on the other side, be they Catholics or political conservatives or anyone who does not subscribe to the new liberal orthodoxy, they are no longer expected merely to tolerate those views with which they disagree, but to affirm and celebrate them - anything less is seen as bigotry or any one of a hundred categories of phobia. Meanwhile, secular liberals can be as intolerant as they like, verbally attacking people and their characters while almost never engaging with and debating their ideas.
If tolerance is to mean anything, it means precisely that liberals must put up with speech that they regard as “intolerant” of what they like and celebrate. Otherwise they are no better than that trope to which they frequently have recourse: the hypocritical priest who refuses to practise what he preaches.
I once heard Church of England Bishop of Rochester Dr Michael Nazir Ali describe tolerance as a “thin” virtue. Tolerance is not and never has been a Christian virtue. Christians are called to the much more radical duty of loving one’s neighbour, not merely tolerating him.
This does not mean that one is obliged to contrive feelings of affection towards – or even particularly to like the company of – one’s neighbour. But what it does require is that one act towards him out of love, and treat him with dignity and respect.
This counts most of all when dealing with someone with whom you do not agree, and even one who hates you. As Christ himself said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
This provides a real and significant constraint on the way in which Christians are permitted to behave towards their political opponents. In practical terms, it is the difference between attacking an idea – while accepting that person’s right to air it – which is part of any good debate, and attacking the person.
In contrast, what was notable about the newspaper and social media responses to the conference attendance was their complete lack of engagement with any ideas that may have been advanced at the conference. They were, rather, about the asserted wrong-headedness of the young people who attended it, seeking to ruin them politically, professionally and even personally.
So next time, before you reach for your keyboard to name-call or shout abuse about a person whose views you do not like, why not exercise some tolerance and critique the viewpoint, not the person?