Time For Truth

A place to grow in the Grace & Knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ

Let’s return to a classical view of tolerance

We live in a very confused and intolerant world today.  Civility in our postmodern so-called tolerant world has become non-existent, but not necessarily where we might expect to find it. 

It has recently been reported that MSNBC and others have made a big show of pointing out a particular man at a protest who was carrying weapons linking him to racism.  What they did not tell people, and was clearly avoided by the video camera was the fact that this man was black.  Not only does this show media bias bordering on negligence and malpractice, but it also highlights the modern views of tolerance.  It has not only become acceptable, but even fashionable to attack and demean individuals for not holding the same views as the attacker.  We require tolerance of all ideas, which gives license to be intolerant toward people.  This is an entire reversal of the traditional view of tolerance.

Gregory Koukl has written an incisive and important article on the topic of tolerance, available online here.

Here is a portion of that article:

Escaping the Trap. “Would you like to know how to get out of this dilemma?” I asked. They nodded. “You must reject this modern distortion of tolerance and return to the classic view.” Then I wrote these two principles on the board:

Be egalitarian regarding persons.
Be elitist regarding ideas.1

“Egalitarian” was a new word for them. “Think equal,” I said. “Treat others as having equal standing in value or worth.” They knew what an elitist was, though, someone who thought he or she was better than others. “Right,” I said. “When you are elitist regarding ideas, you are acknowledging that some ideas are better than others; and they are. We don’t treat all ideas as if they have the same merit, lest we run into contradiction. Some ideas are good. Some are bad. Some are true. Some are false. Some are brilliant. Others are just plain foolish.”

The first principle, what might be called “civility,” is at the heart of the classical view of tolerance. It can be loosely equated with the word “respect.” Tolerance applies to how we treat people we disagree with, not how we treat ideas we think are false. We respect those who hold different beliefs from our own by treating such people courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. We may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we still show respect to their persons despite our differences. Classic tolerance requires that every person be treated courteously with the freedom to express his or her ideas without fear of reprisal no matter what the view, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or truth.

These two categories are frequently conflated in the muddled thinking created by the myth of tolerance. The view that one person’s ideas are no better or truer than another’s is simply absurd and inescapably self-contradictory. To argue that some views are false, immoral, or just plain silly does not violate any meaningful definition or standard of tolerance.

Topsy-Turvy. The modern definition of tolerance turns the classical formula for tolerance on its head:

Be egalitarian regarding ideas.

Be elitist regarding persons.

If you reject another’s ideas, you’re automatically accused of disrespecting the person (as the coed did with me). In this new view of tolerance, no idea or behavior can be opposed — even if done graciously — without inviting the charge of incivility.

To say I’m intolerant of the person because I disagree with his or her ideas is confused; ironically, it results in elitism regarding persons. If I think my ideas are better than another’s, I can be ill-treated as a person, publicly marginalized, and verbally abused as bigoted, disrespectful, ignorant, indecent, and (can you believe it?) intolerant. Sometimes I can even be sued, punished by law, or forced to attend re-education programs.2

In this way, tolerance has gone topsy-turvy: Tolerate most beliefs, but don’t tolerate (show respect for) those who take exception with those beliefs. Contrary opinions are labeled as “imposing your view on others” and quickly silenced.

This is nonsense and should be abandoned. The myth of tolerance forces everyone into an inevitable “Catch-22,” because each person in any debate has a point of view he or she thinks is correct.

Catch-22. Classical tolerance involves three elements: (1) permitting or allowing (2) a conduct or point of view one disagrees with (3) while respecting the person in the process. Notice that we can’t truly tolerate someone unless we disagree with him or her. This is critical. We don’t “tolerate” people who share our views. They’re on our side. There’s nothing with which we need to put up. Tolerance is reserved for those we think are wrong, yet we still choose to treat decently and with respect.

This essential element of classical tolerance — disagreement (elitism regarding ideas) — has been completely lost in the modern distortion of the concept. Nowadays if you think someone is wrong, you’re called intolerant no matter how you treat the person.

This presents a curious problem. In order to exercise true tolerance, one must first think another is wrong, yet saying so brings the accusation of intolerance. It’s a “Catch-22.” According to this approach, true tolerance becomes impossible.

Intellectual Cowardice. Most of what passes for tolerance today is little more than intellectual cowardice — a fear of intelligent engagement. Those who brandish the word “intolerant” are unwilling to be challenged by other views or grapple with contrary opinions, or even to consider them. It’s easier to hurl an insult — “you intolerant bigot” — than to confront an idea and either refute it or be changed by it. In the modern era, “tolerance” has become intolerance.

As ambassadors for Christ, we choose the more courageous path, “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5; NASB). Whenever you’re charged with intolerance, always ask for a definition. When tolerance means neutrality, that all views are equally valid and true, then no one is ever tolerant because no one is ever neutral about his or her own views. Point out the contradiction built into the new definition. Point out that this kind of tolerance is a myth.

— Gregory Koukl

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August 20, 2009 - Posted by | Christian Living, politics, Theology

2 Comments »

  1. Exactly! This needs to be said and repeated, often.

    Comment by Sara | August 20, 2009

  2. Very good piece. Thanks for posting this.

    Comment by will spotts | August 21, 2009


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