Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Intolerant Tolerance


Recently, in the news, there have been reports of certain politicians seeking to ban “discrimination” against homosexuals by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of marital status or sexual orientation. One effect of such a law would be to force Christian institutions out of running adoption agencies, unless they go against what they believe to be right and commanded by God.

The interesting thing about it is this sort of action is done in the name of Tolerance. To oppose allowing people to do certain things on the basis of marital status or sexual orientation is called Intolerance and those groups practicing what is labeled “intolerance” is to be opposed and the groups who practice it are not to be… tolerated.

What it Means to Tolerate – or to be Intolerant

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

—Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Let's start with the actual definition of the term. Tolerate is defined as:


■ v.

1 allow the existence or occurrence of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference.

2 endure (someone or something unpleasant) with forbearance.

(Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

It's a significant point. One tolerates something which they do not like and allows it to exist without interference. The contrary would then be Intolerance:


adj. (often intolerant of) not tolerant of views, beliefs, or behavior that differ from one’s own.

(Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

So from a strict definition, anyone who refuses to allow the views, beliefs or behavior different from one’s own to exist without interference is intolerant.


They [La Prensa] accused us of suppressing freedom of expression. This was a lie and we could not let them publish it.

PJ O'Rourke, Holidays in Hell (quoting a Sandinista Official [Nelba Blandón]).

The irony shows up when one considers the opposition to groups labeled as Intolerant. Such groups are to be opposed in their beliefs and laws are proposed or passed which seek to force such “intolerant” groups to either change their views or cease to function in a certain sphere of influence.

Such opposition cannot be considered to be allowing the existence without interference, and in fact seeks to reduce their ability to operate in public while practicing their views.

This is of course the definition of Intolerance however. If Tolerance is to be an absolute value, then those who champion tolerance are in fact intolerant and must be opposed.

Looking at the Real Issue

This is what happens when slogans and propaganda replace rational discourse however. Tolerance and Intolerance are in fact labels to promote one point of view and vilify another. What we need to do is to look behind the labels and see what is actually being championed.

Let's consider the following groups, for example (especially chosen for their repugnance):

  1. Pedophiles
  2. Terrorists
  3. Serial Killers
  4. Nazis
  5. Rapists

If it is true that All Intolerance is Wrong, then it follows that any attempt to interfere with the groups listed above is wrong.

However, I think any sane person however would reject the idea of the rights of the groups listed above to practice without restriction.  Indeed, we would consider anyone who thinks their behavior right to be morally or mentally disordered.

That's where the problem lies. If there is something which is recognized as always wrong, not merely wrong in certain circumstances, then it follows that one ought never to tolerate that which is always wrong.

So the real issue which masquerades behind the label of tolerance is an assumption that a certain moral view is correct, and those who disagree with it are morally wrong in doing so. The person who labels another’s beliefs as intolerant is actually saying they think the person’s beliefs are morally wrong.

On Moral Rightness and Wrongness

To say an action is morally right, morally neutral or morally wrong is actually to appeal to some sort of absolute which transcends culture. Genocide was not morally right in Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 just because the society leaders accepted it. Ethnic Cleansing was not right when it was practiced in Bosnia after the breakup of Yugoslavia.

We condemn these actions, not because the Nazis or the Serbs were intolerant, but because they were doing something – targeting racial and religious minorities for persecution – which we condemn as always wrong.

So if accepting the activities of a group as being morally acceptable or morally neutral is required in some cases (such as ethnic or religious minorities), and not right in other circumstances (tolerating pedophiles) it means one group is doing something unobjectionable and another is doing something wrong.

This requires us to ask, what makes an act right? On what authority is one group to claim that [X] is an absolute good or evil?

Authority and Reason

To the Christian, the belief that there are acts which can never be justified and some acts which are good is obligatory. We believe that God has structured the universe where Good reflects His nature and evil contradicts it. Also, Good is beneficial to us while Evil harms us. We believe that good and evil can be known by all individuals and this knowledge is distinct from our passions and wants. Our knowledge of good and evil can be deadened by indulging our passions and ignoring our conscience.

The Christian stance on good and evil is not a mere “the Bible says so” stance. Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out (Summa Contra Gentiles I: Chapter 2, #3) that it does no good to point to the Bible as an authority if someone does not accept the Bible as authoritative, and we must make use of natural reason to justify what we believe.

That of course cuts both ways. If someone says “I reject Christian teaching and believe we must do [X] instead,” then it is not enough for them to insist on it from their own say so (called ipse dixit – claiming the truth of something based solely on their own say-so). They must also make use of natural reason to justify their authority.

Practicing What is Preached

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

—GK Chesterton

Failure to understand why Christians believe as they do does not make Christians bigoted, but it does make those who use the labels bigoted by failing to consider why they feel they must act as they do.

I think this is important to stress here. If Christians are accused of imposing their views on others (as is done on issues such as abortion or Gay “marriage”) then it follows that those who would try to force their views on Christian institutions are guilty of the same – they are hypocritical if imposing values they disagree with is something to be considered wrong.

Thus the person who invokes the propaganda term of tolerance as a reason for opposing Christian values is not practicing what he preaches. To paraphrase Peter Kreeft, if they practice what they preach, they’ll stop preaching. However, if they think issues like abortion and homosexual acts are morally acceptable and those who disagree are morally in the wrong, they must recognize that moral absolutes do exist and they must offer their own defense as to why their values are correct.

They must let those arguments face the challenges of those who disagree instead of stooping to ad hominem attacks, calling those who disagree with them “racist,” “homophobe,” “intolerant,” and the like. 

Otherwise such opposition to Christian beliefs can be justly called both hypocritical and intolerant – in the true sense of the word.

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