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Limits of Tolerance

by James Hitchcock
March 24, 2005

All cultures have dominant virtues -- particular moral traits that embody the highest ideals of the society. Somewhere along the line, without anyone's being fully aware of it, our dominant virtue became "tolerance," an idea that creates more problems than it solves.

Americans have always thought of themselves as a tolerant people, because of the liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. But, as our critics never tire of pointing out, the historical reality is rather different. We have often been intolerant of racial minorities, to take the most obvious example. The apostles of tolerance might say that at last we are at the point of actually fulfilling our claims, but the reality is otherwise.

Tolerance fails as a virtue, first of all, because it is in some ways demeaning to people. It is much better to speak of "respect" or "empathy." But that is precisely the problem -- common sense tells us that there are people who cannot and ought not to command our respect or empathy. We regard what they stand for as stupid, crazy, evil, or all three. To be respectful of them would be to abandon all moral sense, so that a completely tolerant person would be totally passive, without a moral center.

Thus we fall back on "tolerance," which merely means conceding to people the right to be who they are, while withholding our respect. But the determined advocates of tolerance are not content with that and keep slipping back into making tolerance imply the necessity of respect. This in turn leads to the phenomenon of "political correctness," whereby people are censured (and censored) for saying things that are deemed to indicate lack of respect for others. In academic life, where the phenomenon is rampant, there is supposed to be complete freedom of expression, except when someone says something disrespectful of particular groups. Thus the obligation of tolerance leads inexorably to intolerance, turning the claim to be tolerant into a tautology, a statement that merely repeats itself -- "I am tolerant except about those things of which I am intolerant."

The idea of tolerance is fundamentally self-contradictory because those who consider themselves tolerant cannot help but be intolerant of those they deem to be intolerant. The benignly smiling individual, arms open to embrace the world, can instantly turn into a snarling attack dog when he sniffs out what he considers to be intolerance. Indeed, self-consciously tolerant people often see their role in society as precisely that. Whereas earlier moralists crusaded against pornography or alcohol, today's guardians of righteousness sternly condemn other people's intolerance.

Jesus' story about the Pharisee and the publican has now been turned on its head. It is the Pharisee -- the pious, upright church-goer -- who is on the defensive, keeping his head down, while the publican proclaims at every opportunity, "Thank God I am not like the rest of men -- self-righteous, intolerant, hate-filled," a proclamation that often brings plaudits from the media.

Apostles of tolerance usually identify religion as the chief cause of intolerance in the world, to the point of continually recalling incidents that happened centuries ago while ignoring things much closer to hand. This in turn means that religion itself, in its traditional forms, becomes the target of intolerance. It is permissible to say the most outrageous things about religion, and about religious believers, without being accused of intolerance.

Among other things, there is a melancholy fact about human nature revealed here -- tolerance is not natural to human beings, and the real question at any point in history is simply who is going to be intolerant of whom.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's two volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses
and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', was released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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