Those Who Profess “Tolerance” Are Not Always Tolerant

The defining ideology of today’s intellectual elite can be summed up in a single word: tolerance.  To be even mildly disapproving of anyone’s lifestyle or life choices is, to use the all-encompassing buzzword for any difference of opinion regarding values or core beliefs, bigotry—or to use a favored euphemism of our politically correct age, an attempt to stigmatize those whose values do not conform to mainstream norms.

It certainly seems to many that—if only we can pass enough rules, regulations, and “voluntary” guidelines to ensure that no one ever expresses an opinion that might make anyone feel judged in any manner—we can expect to live in an earthly paradise where everyone speaks in low tones, all conflicts are banished, and inconveniently outmoded beliefs tied to traditional religious practices or cultural norms will simply wither away.

However, there does seem to be one obvious problem with making “tolerance” the new god we are all to worship: At what point does endorsing everything cross the line and become a belief in absolutely nothing?  Are we to be left bereft of any guiding principles beyond a hazy notion we should not fault the actions of others because we are forbidden from imposing our values, whatever those might be, on anyone else?

This would be an interesting discussion to actually have, but too often we see reasoned debate grind to a halt because too many people grow defensive when their ideas are questioned, accuse those who disagree with them of intolerance, and loudly complain that the discomfort of listening to diverse opinions has created an intellectually hostile environment that can only be remediated by forcing those terrible folks with contrary thoughts to shut the heck up the next time.

Forgive me if I seem a bit flippant, but it seems to me that the pursuit of “tolerance” has produced a lot of exceedingly intolerant restraints on free speech and a horde of scolding bureaucrats who wield their rulebooks like cudgels to ensure that any real diversity of thought and opinion is smothered.

The true meaning of tolerance is to tolerate the idea that we can all sometimes be wrong; if we can shed our self-righteous attitudes and learn to listen to—and respect—viewpoints that differ from our own, perhaps there is yet some hope for finding solutions to the many problems that now plague our society.  Reasonable people should be able to agreeably disagree, and discussions become unreasonable only when anyone insists that they—and only they—have the correct answer to whatever question is at hand.

It should likewise be acceptable, when the discussion is done, to continue to hold to a belief contrary to those who insist they know better.  That pesky dissenting viewpoint is, perhaps more than we might fully realize, the one we should listen to most closely when we are planning to chuck some bit of age-old wisdom on the scrap heap of history.

I sometimes wonder whether our insistence on consensus—or thoroughgoing intellectual conformity if you like—in both government and academe is killing our nation and accounts for some portion of the groupthink-powered policy blunders that are a daily malaise of our modern world.  Those whose beliefs do not conform to the orthodoxy of our intellectuals elites are unwelcome—and obviously wrong—so those voices that might caution against a particular action are therefore easy to ignore.

We need to be able to talk—but we also need to be able to disagree on occasion.  It is, to be honest, quite beneficial to have our comfortable preconceptions forcefully challenged—one of the reasons that I actively search out opinions that differ from my own.  A good argument keeps us from being intellectually flabby, but only if we can honestly engage with firmly held beliefs that are contrary to those that make us feel comfortable about ourselves and our life decisions—and take advantage of the opportunity for debate and reflection these dissenting ideas offer to us all.

One of the signs of a truly educated individuals is the ability to recognize that what they firmly believe to be true may be, in fact, completely wrong.  World history is rife with examples of ideologues who claimed to be able to see “truths” that escaped others—and none of us should ever allow ourselves the luxury of believing we have evolved past the point of all doubt about our beliefs.  To do otherwise is to invite inevitable disaster.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( June 8, 2014

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