Ten Theses on Tolerance
With intolerance on the rise, now is the time to ask: What is tolerance?
Americans on both Left and Right seem increasingly convinced that the other side’s viewpoint is so entirely wrong and pernicious that it is simply past bearing. So we end relationships, deplatform views, and try to cancel those who hold them. In short, we display growing intolerance.
So, maybe it is time to ask, what is tolerance? What is its value? On what grounds can it be criticized? Here are ten theses:
1. Tolerance is conditionally putting up with things you don’t like.
Botanists ask how much loss of moisture a plant can tolerate and still survive. In the 18th century, Hungary disfavored Jews, but would tolerate them if they paid a “toleration” tax. In these examples, perceived threats are deemed bearable for certain purposes within certain limits.
Thus, tolerance is contingent, practiced not for its own sake but because it is a means of obtaining other things we want. The core question therefore becomes, tolerance for what?
2. Tolerance is more a concession than a right.
In The Rise of Toleration, historian Henry Kamen defines tolerance as “the concession of liberty to those who dissent in religion.” Western tolerance is rooted in Europe’s 16th- and 17th-century religious wars. Exhausted, Europeans accepted religious tolerance as the necessary price of peace and the growth of trade.
Kamen’s definition also suggests that tolerance is granted by one party to another rather than held as a right. Rights are strong things. As the Declaration of Independence puts it, rights accrue to individuals from their “Creator” and are “unalienable.” They inhere in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” People don’t need the state’s or their neighbors’ permission to exercise them.
In contrast, tolerance is more conditional and inextricably social. Thus religious “liberty” ordinarily refers to a right, religious “tolerance” to a concession.
3. Tolerance conflicts with other values.
Tolerance exists only in relation to other values, some of which—such as solidarity, democracy, and honesty—can conflict with tolerance. Theorists such as Isaiah Berlin and William Galston call this phenomenon “goods in conflict”—think of mercy conflicting with justice, or freedom with cooperation. Such conflicts can never be fully resolved. The best we can do is to try to balance them wisely.
4. Tolerance can endanger itself.
In what Karl Popper calls the “paradox of tolerance,” unbounded tolerance can lead to the victory of intolerance by tolerating those who themselves are intolerant. Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, delivers this warning:
[I]f we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.… I do not imply … that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; But we should claim … in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.
The citizens’ group Braver Angels, which I lead and whose mission is to pursue less societal polarization, wrestles with these issues. In some respects, we dissent from Popper’s argument. For example, in our podcasts, debates, and national meetings in early 2021, we included strong voices arguing that the 2020 election was likely stolen and that patriotic concerns motivated most people at the January 6 protests at the U.S. Capitol, even though some of our members disagreed with this decision.
Earlier this year, YouTube took down a January, 2022 Braver Angels podcast on the grounds that our featured guest—Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars and author of the recent book Wrath: America Enraged—violated YouTube policy by spreading false information about the 2020 presidential election. (A week later, after a review, YouTube changed its mind and put the podcast back up.)
Did we tolerate what we shouldn’t have tolerated? Since the 2020 election, most groups in what is often called the “bridge-building” field have drawn lines in the sand for reasons like Popper’s: Some voices are welcome, but others are too dangerous. Braver Angels’ approach is increasingly unusual, but I believe that leaving all Americans free to express all views is the only approach consistent with our mission. We choose our topics carefully, on the basis of how much and how dangerously they divide the country. We require participants to abide by our rules of engagement, which include civility toward others and a willingness to listen as well as speak. But within that framework, there is no list of disallowed beliefs.
5. Democracy does not require tolerance.
I spent most of my life assuming that self-government and tolerance thrived together, like two flowers in one garden; but I was wrong.
More than two decades ago, Fareed Zakaria proposed the term “illiberal democracy” to describe regimes in which leaders are duly elected by the people but civil liberties related to tolerance are curtailed or denied. Zakaria and others suggest that the number of the world’s illiberal democracies is growing, and it is hard to dispute them.
One such regime today is Hungary. When Viktor Orbán was re-elected as Hungary’s Prime Minister in 2010, he famously said, “A democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it can still be a democracy.” When it comes to tolerating political dissent and minority political views, liberal educational institutions, immigrants, homosexual conduct, and other previously protected people and actions, Hungary is now what Orbán describes as an “illiberal democracy” that actively seeks to “abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society as well as the liberal way to look at the world.”
Orbán and others who believe as he does now clearly favor group rights over individual rights. They say plainly that what “we”—the “real people” who constitute what Orbán calls the “soul” of Hungary—want matters more than the claims of unpopular minorities. In the name of democracy, or with its tacit blessing, the sphere of authority expands while the sphere of tolerance shrinks.
6. Situation guides tolerance.
In their study of American political extremism, The Politics of Unreason, Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab urge us to resist the temptation to interpret the intolerance of some extremist movements as the fruits of “diabolism:” “Extremist movements are not primarily the products of extremists. The critical ranks … are not composed of evil-structured types called ‘extremists,’ but rather of ordinary people caught up in certain kinds of stress.”
Lipset and Raab identify “status deprivation”—that is, the “displacement of some population groups from former positions”—as the type of stress most conducive to the rise of extremist movements. What drives extreme political anger is less a particular economic or political trend than the way people feel about their place in society. Situation is prior to attitude. Put people of different races in certain situations, and racism will likely dominate. Put exactly the same people in different situations, and racism is unlikely to dominate. Clearly, the main problem isn’t defective people, but decent people under “certain kinds of stress.”
It’s easy to believe that intolerant people contribute to our social problems, and sometimes they do. But what if the deeper truth is that some circumstances and occasions are particularly likely to generate intolerance, even if the people involved are virtuous?
Intense dislike of others is usually a reaction. Outrage is usually an expression of pain.
7. Certain habits of mind are unfriendly to tolerance.
Binary thinking is the presumption that for every question there are two possible answers and that these answers are opposites. Binary thinking almost by definition leads us to either/or choices between true and false, good and bad, right and wrong. Perhaps some choices are genuinely binary. But most aren’t, or at least that’s how we see it at Braver Angels. A. J. Muste expresses our argument beautifully: “You always assume there is some element of truth in the position of the other person [and] you must try very hard to see what truth actually does exist in their idea, and seize on it to make them realize what you consider to be a larger truth.”
Similarly, if your thinking tends toward monism, you tend to believe that one guiding principle or master cause essentially explains everything. You also believe that all good or bad things have one correct place in the scheme of things, so that, when well understood, they fit together like properly arranged pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
In contrast, if your epistemology tends toward values pluralism, you tend to think that life’s goods don’t revolve around one controlling conception. You further believe that freely choosing people will never succeed, even if aided by reason or revelation, in arranging their values so that they all hold together as a unity without clashing with one another.
I don’t want to argue the merits here. I do want to argue that, for better or worse, values pluralism is friendlier to tolerance than monism. Why? Because pluralism—no one main answer, no fixed hierarchy of goods—contains built-in room for doubt and uncertainty, which can increase one’s capacity or even appetite for tolerance.
Do we all know intolerant pluralists? Yes. Do we know tolerant monists? Of course. Should tolerance always trump intolerance? No. But, begging your tolerance, I make this claim.
8. Publicly engaging dangerous arguments shouldn’t depend on the arguments.
People who disapprove of Braver Angels’ approach often ask challengingly: “Would you debate (something horrible)?” Is nothing off limits?” The short answer is that nothing is off limits.
It’s not that Braver Angels has no guidelines. Some topics don’t merit discussion because they aren’t important enough. Some people believe Elvis is alive, but that question isn’t tearing us apart, so we don’t engage it. Likewise, we wouldn’t engage “Pizzagate”—allegations that Hillary Clinton engaged in human trafficking and child sexual abuse—because very few Americans believe that the allegations are credible.
But what if large and growing numbers of American citizens did begin asserting something horrible as part of their political agenda?
If that happened, I hope we’d find good ways to engage the topic, which would include letting people who believe the horrible thing say so and defend their view. What would be the alternative? Ignoring them? Deplatforming them? Attacking them personally? Making their views illegal? Some people favor such alternatives, but we don’t. Our choices about which subjects to debate depend on what is polarizing America, not on how we feel about the subjects themselves.
The reasons why we make this choice involve our final two theses.
9. Tolerance is the condition of freedom.
In free societies, people regularly test the limits of our tolerance. Moreover, all societies have moral and cultural boundaries; in no society is everything tolerated. The question is never “boundary” versus “no boundary,” but the wisest balance.
A major intellectual attack on tolerance occurs in Herbert Marcuse’s 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.” Marcuse is a monist. His unifying theory is anti-capitalism. He’s a binary thinker, viewing the human drama as zero-sum struggles between the oppressed and their oppressors.
Marcuse also rejects tolerance. For him, a proper anti-capitalist society “cannot protect false words and wrong deeds” that “contradict and counteract the possibilities of liberation.” He favors denying politically retrograde groups the rights of free speech and assembly and advocates “rigid restrictions on teaching and practices in … educational institutions.” As against traditional tolerance, Marcuse recommends what he calls “liberating tolerance,” meaning “intolerance against movements from the Right, and tolerance of movements from the Left.” His argument confirms a sociological rule: On both Left and Right, the more authoritarian the politics, the less room for tolerance.
Why worry about growing intolerance? To the degree that we lose faith in tolerance, some version of Marcuse is the only alternative. We cherish tolerance because unfreedom denies it and freedom requires it.
10. Tolerance is truth’s partner.
Why do so many of us believe that so many others no longer accept facts? The answer isn’t intellectually weak people as much as the weakening of our truth-adjudicating institutions—a weakening that both feeds on and contributes to the loss of social trust. Growing numbers of people on both sides getting their facts wrong is a consequence of this trend, but not the cause.
We are in a degenerative cycle harming many of our institutions, from Congress to courts to universities. Consider the media. Polarization means that we no longer rely on the same sources of information. Which encourages more of those sources to develop business models based on fostering partisanship and offering click-bait to the angry. Which produces more factual distortion. Which produces more rancor and mistrust. Which produces more polarization.
If I wanted to accelerate this cycle, I know what I would do: I would refuse to engage people who in my view aren’t in good faith about facts. I would brand them as dangerous, refuse to talk to them, and try to deplatform them. I would publicly question their motives and their hold on reality. I would call them names featuring words like “disinformation” and “conspiracy theory.”
But if I wanted to stop the cycle, I would seek more engagement, not less. I would do all I could to keep the conversation going, even and perhaps especially when the conversation seemed pointless or even dangerous. To get more truth, I would tolerate more error, not less.
Why? Because the best way for free people to determine what is true is to tolerate false statements and odious ideas so that they can be publicly contested and corrected.
Jonathan Rauch, a founding Braver Angels board member, in his book The Constitution of Knowledge, calls this notion the “single most counterintuitive social principle in all of human history.” But Rauch strongly defends it, as do thinkers dating back at least to John Locke, because it usually works, especially with the right cultural supports, while the alternatives nearly always fail.
At the beginning of this essay, I said that the core question is, “Tolerance for what?” The core answer is, “Truth.”
David Blankenhorn is president of Braver Angels, a citizens’ group working for less rancor and more goodwill in U.S. politics and society. Twitter: @blankenhorn3
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