Friday, 1 February 2013

How Much Tolerance Can We Tolerate?

Good People and Going Wrong, Part 5

My brother once had a coworker with whom he frequently disagreed. My brother was perfectly OK with gay marriage and women who were preachers. His coworker was not especially OK with these things. If the Bible says that women can only preach if there are no men to do it, then he says he does not intend for it to come to that.

One day the coworker came to work with the root of their difference figured out. "You are tolerant," he said. "I am intolerant."

My brother was fairly accepting of this assessment because he thought he was getting the better end of that deal. However, he told me, his coworker did not agree. To his coworker, it would be better to be intolerant than tolerant. And this struck us as being alien, though kind of understandable: what the coworker thought my brother was tolerating was very bad, and of course you should not tolerate something terrible.

It is a commonplace now to say that part of the problem preceding the Second World War was that the world tolerated Hitler's actions. If the world were not so tolerant of Nazism, perhaps fewer atrocities would have occurred. I think most of us on the political left would agree that certain things must not be tolerated. Indeed, the left generally tries not to tolerate racism, sexism, etc.* So when the left talks about tolerance and mutual respect, clearly what we want to tolerate is a different kind of difference than certain ethical differences. Right?

I’m going to be rather writerly right now. I don't know what to write next. This seems like a meta-ethical problem: tolerance is clearly a value in the sense I've been using the word as much as it is part of a philosophical ethical system. But on the other hand this value is about how we conduct ourselves towards other people's values. It is a meta-value, and for all that it seems to be one of the most deeply rooted values that my segment of the culture holds. On the other hand, it seems to be only certain kinds of difference that are tolerated: difference in sexual behaviour, difference in language, difference in degree of socialism/communism. Social and fiscal conservatism are not especially tolerable, at least not among some.

To continue being writerly, indicated by my italics, it is exactly this problem that this series is supposed to be about. I want to agree with my brother, that tolerance is a good thing and intolerance is a bad thing. I also want to say that good people sometimes do what I would consider bad things specifically because they are well-intentioned (but incorrect about what is the "right" thing to do). But I want to say that even so there are people who maybe aren't "bad people," but who certainly aren't really good people, either. So I want to say that tolerance is a value, but that I am intolerant of some things. I know there is an act of equivocation here, and I think it’s that what is meant by “tolerance” in the leftist sense is not actual tolerance after all. Tolerance suggests that something about the tolerated behaviour is inconvenient, and I do not think of gay marriage as being inconvenient. But are there inconvenient things I am willing to tolerate? This particular problem is an instance of the general problem I am wrestling with.

Series Index

*I want to emphasize again that I don't believe that the left-right continuum, or even the political compass, are sufficient. My hackles rise whenever I am placed on it, or asked to place myself on it. But I do know that political opinion tests most recently place me as a Leftist Libertarian (but not by very much). I kind of bridle under that label, but at least you'll know where I'm coming from if I tell you that.


Jon Wong said...

Here's an example I think would work (and you may remember that I blogged about this once): I am tolerant of the fact that people in my parents' generation (esp. Chinese) are uncomfortable with gay marriage. I obviously don't support their views, but I understand that their socio-cultural background is one where gay marriage has never been accepted.

So maybe you could ask yourself if there are any cases where you are tolerant of intolerant people?

On a side note, I am wondering if at any point, you will be examining the disparity between "doing good things" and "being a good person." Or rather, actually, if it makes the disparity clearer, looking at the difference between "doing bad things" and "being a bad person".

Jon Wong said...

I'm also wondering if you came to any conclusion about the whole actions vs. intent issue. As in, you suggested 3 provisional approaches to tackling the issue, but you didn't say whether you've decided that one approach or another works better.

Christian H said...

I am not coming to conclusions at all because I don't really have any. I'm having a hard time with this problem and I'm not going to pretend to have a definitive opinion on this.

My conclusion, such as it is, rolls out tomorrow. I might write a summary later to make sure that all of the basic points are in one place, but that still won't resolve any issues.

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