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Liberal Tolerance


A discussion of "tolerance" as understood by contemporary liberals emphasizing its transformation into something endlessly demanding, inconsistent with self-government, and thus (ironically) radically intolerant.


James Kalb

 Author Notes

Lawyer and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Mr. Kalb maintains his own interesting Web site at which others of his writings can be found.

 Essay -

Contemporary liberalism honors diversity and tolerance above all, but what it calls by those names is different from what has been so called in the past. Its diversity denigrates and excludes ordinary people, and its tolerance requires speech codes, quotas, and compulsory training in correct opinions and attitudes. Nor do current liberal totems and taboos have a clear connection with letting people live as they wish. Prohibitions, both grand and petty, multiply. To outsiders the rules often seem simply arbitrary: prayer is forbidden while instruction in the use of condoms is required; smoking and furs are outrages, abortion and sodomy fundamental rights.

Many of these oddities can be explained by reference to the specific understanding of tolerance held by contemporary liberals. "Tolerance" is traditionally understood procedurally, to mean letting people do what they want. Contemporary liberals understand it substantively, to require equal respect as a fact of social life. These understandings are radically inconsistent. As a political matter, procedural tolerance calls for laissez-faire, while substantive tolerance requires pervasive administrative control of social life. A regime that adopts substantive tolerance as its goal must be intolerant procedurally because it must control the attitudes people have toward each other, and any serious attempt to do so will require means that are unforgiving and despotic.

The issue may be clarified by contrasting a libertarian state, one that holds to the traditional view, with one that favors the newer view. A libertarian state is in one sense the most tolerant possible, but in another does not care about the matter. You can do whatever you want as long as you do not violate certain clearly defined rights. As a result, a libertarian state is indifferent between tolerant and intolerant ways of life as long as the intolerance does not take the form of physical attack or violation of property rights. It may in fact be quite hospitable to intolerance. For example, such a state is structurally unforgiving of certain weaknesses, because it has no public welfare system, and that structural feature is likely to be reflected in unforgiving social attitudes.

In contrast, the multicultural welfare state that contemporary liberals favor is intended to promote social tolerance in the sense of equal respect. To do so, it must be intolerant of many ways of life that do not directly injure or interfere with others. For example, laws against discrimination are intolerant of the ways of life called "racist," "sexist," "homophobic," and so on. They force people to associate with others against their will, denying them the right to choose those with whom they will live and work. Since sexual distinctions and religious and ethnic loyalties permeate and organize the life of all societies, the multicultural welfare state is in fact intolerant of all actual ways of life, and committed in the name of tolerance to transform them radically through the use of force. The new tolerance thus means that no one except a few ideologues can live as he wants.

Ideally, substantive tolerance would require treatment of all ways of life as equal in value. That is not possible, since there are intolerant ways of life, some aggressively so. It follows that only those ways of life can be treated as equal that are acceptably tolerant of other ways. When two ways of life exclude each other, for example voluntary ethnic separatism and universal inclusivity, the contemporary liberal state must suppress one in favor of the other. Since contemporary liberalism rejects the libertarian standard of requiring only respect for property and avoidance of physical aggression, the ways of life that are acceptably tolerant are not those that leave others alone in the most direct and obvious sense. On that view the ethnic separatists would prevail, which they assuredly do not. Instead, a more substantive criterion is applied.

The liberal criterion seems to be that a way of life is tolerant only if it accepts the view that one man is as good as another, and whatever a man likes is good for him. Such a definition of "tolerant" seems necessary to explain the way liberals use the word. On such a view all ways of life are equally valuable because all persons and therefore all preferences are equal; to say that one way of life is better than another is simply to say that those who like to live that way are better than others, and is in itself an intolerant act since what people say forms the social environment in which all live. As a criterion for the acceptability of ways of life, this definition is demanding to the point of what would ordinarily be called intolerance; it turns out that to be tolerant is to hold a very specific and rather unusual moral theory, one that considers persons objectively valuable but all else valuable only subjectively. All those who hold moral theories that recognize objective substantive goods, for example all adherents of traditional religions, are by definition "intolerant."

But if liberalism tolerates only a particular and highly contestable moral theory that few people hold, how does it differ from theocratic systems it has historically viewed as intolerant? It seems no more tolerant to insist that we be drilled in the doctrine and casuistry of inclusiveness than that of the Church. The procedural intolerance of a political regime depends less on its basis in religion or otherwise than on the clarity of its ends, its dedication to achieving them, and the strength and variety of the things it must overcome to do so. Liberals are often very clear as to what they want, highly dedicated to their ideals, and vividly conscious of the strength of the impulses, habits and institutions that stand in the way of achieving them. Why expect them to display tolerance as tolerance is traditionally conceived? A council of civil rights lawyers may have no more forbearance than a council of theologians. It is likely to have less, since its members place more emphasis on the ability of those who happen to hold power to make of the world what they will.

More and more, the new tolerance is destroying the old. The modern liberal state is no longer limited except in the sense that it is not authorized to deviate from liberalism, and to be limited in that sense is simply to be subject to control by an ideological elite. Respect for the views of the people is no longer a serious principle. Such an outcome is paradoxical: liberalism began with worries about mixing ultimate moral questions with politics, and a desire to limit government and make it responsible to the people. It has ended in a system that cares nothing about such things.

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