Principled Tolerance

Tolerance, as it is being understood and practiced in Western culture today, is in danger of becoming oppressive and undermining its own good intentions.
As Western culture becomes less uniform in its cultural influences and drifts from its historical roots in its Judeo – Christian heritage, the way we understand and practice tolerance of difference in belief, values and life style is crucial to our common good.
My proposition is that true tolerance is only possible if one also holds to other convictions such as truth, goodness and freedom of speech as well as respect for others. What we might call a ‘principled tolerance ‘.
Tolerance can be elevated to the place of supreme virtue so that it obscures or overpowers all other virtues. Without a ‘principled tolerance’ it can easily slip over into any or all of the following negative outcomes:
1. An oppressive political correctness that gradually, through overzealous legislation, creates a raft of social restrictions that diminish our freedoms and stifles the public discussion that is crucial to a healthy democracy and, inadvertently, creates an underlying resentment that is counterproductive to the very aims of the spirit of the legislation. The frequent outbreaks of irreverent and politically incorrect humour are signs of, and blessed reliefs from, this oppressiveness. We so easily forget that laws do not make people good or kind; at best they may only restrain the worst among us. Goodness and kindness come from deeper convictions.
2. The development of a cultural blandness that can lead to indifference about deeper issues of value and questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence and the goal of human flourishing. This is a particular danger in in our prosperous Western societies. Economic hardships have a tendency to inspire deeper questions both politically and spiritually.
3. An intolerant secularism that rejects or seeks to dismiss and marginalises from the public square all religious convictions. Ironically secularism is of course a strongly held conviction in itself and a very narrow and often intolerant one. It is experienced today by people of faith as a kind of ‘hostility creep’ in many areas of life. The most recent being the change to Religious Instruction in Schools in Victoria. Another example is the strange way much current media commentary in Australia works in relation to ‘conviction politics.’ Commentators criticize the blandness and lack of convictions in our politicians and their ‘spin speak’ but as soon as one expresses their religious convictions or personal values strongly in public they are painted as bigoted, and ridiculed as out of step with the ‘assumed majority!’ Only those ‘convictions’ that are listed in the currently acceptable moral lexicon are protected from their derision.
4. A sceptical tolerance: this is when tolerance is driven by a sceptical relativism and anti-foundationalism. “We must tolerate everything because no one knows what the truth is, in fact there is no ultimate truth or objective set of values any way!” This leads our culture to become an empty shell without any deeper purpose than the utilitarian one of keeping social harmony at all cost.
5. Cultural relativism: this is where tolerance is driven by the idea that all cultural practices and beliefs are of equal value and legitimacy and are therefore immune from critique by any other objective standard or set of values. Three examples are sufficient to illustrate the shallowness and inconsistency of this widely held view: The treatment of woman and the abuse of their rights and equality in a number of cultures. The practice of cast inferiority systems endemic in some parts of the Indian sub-continent and other places. Endemic corruption in Asian business and political cultures where business is regularly smoothed by bribery. While corruption in business and politics exists in Australia it is generally seen as unacceptable and destructive of the common good. It is also illegal and you go to jail if you’re caught. We currently have a series of Royal Commissions vigorously investigating corruption. Very few if any Australians would support these three practices indeed most would condemn them. This simply illustrates that most cultural relativists are deeply inconsistent and have their own set of standards by which they judge other cultures. All societies have intolerances to certain practices and ideas like our intolerance of paedophilia, child abuse and violence against woman. Certain “intolerances” are in fact considered virtues. Of course any form of valid critique assumes some objective set of values, some moral convictions. It is at this point that much contemporary thought is hollow, inconsistent and evasive.
The only way to avoid these negative outcomes of a very thin view of tolerance is to hold a “Principled Tolerance”.
(Two excellent books for further reading are “The Intolerance of tolerance” by D A Carson Eerdmans 2012. “The Cube and the Cathedral” by George Weigel Basic Books 2005. This book explains and describes the crisis in the European Union of a spiritually and morally hollowed out culture.)
Peter Corney