March 3, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
In the Twilight of Tolerance
OF ALL the curious notions to beget from our contemporary social and political mores—and they are nary in short supply—the idea of the “hate crime” has long seemed to me one of the most foolish and least defensible. I have never been able to decipher why a fellow that strikes another for being homosexual or Mexican, should somehow be more sharply to blame than the one that strikes another because he reads too many books, speaks with a lisp, or believes in wealth redistribution.
I do not dispute that questions of intent are of real legal matter. We differentiate, meaningfully and usefully, between degrees of murder, and we all know the difference between a crime of passion and one committed in cold blood (a distinction, incidentally, which is decidedly blurred by the concept of the hate crime). Yet in all these cases, ready legal and moral defense can be made of the distinctions in question. What, precisely, is the reason for holding the hate crime in particular contempt?
Those of my readers familiar with my investigation of the concept of genocide will be neither unprepared for this question, nor for the answer which might be furnished in response: namely, that the hate crime, the very existence of the hate crime as a recognized juridical principle, indicates an illness within our societies, or at least a weakness. All laws forbidding this or that act within a society, exist to protect the society from the tendency toward such acts. Such laws reveal, clearly if sometimes unconsciously, precisely where a society perceives its vices and its vulnerabilities to lie. Some of these are more or less universal, as crimes against murder or rape; but the more interesting and the more revelatory are those specific crimes which are unique to a people. For whatever a people is strong enough to permit without fearing for its well being, ceases to be the stuff of its criminal law.
What is the weakness we guard against with our laws on hate crime?
I believe the answer will be apparent enough to anyone who does not like to squint at contemporary society: our weakness is that of all highly heterogeneous societies; our diversity is our weakness. It offers too many surfaces for friction, too many hairline cracks running in too many directions across the face of the civic order, too many points at which the entire edifice might just up and crumble under novel pressures. In this chaos of ethnicities and ethoi, of classes and ranks, of religions and political ideologies, that forms modern society, there is wanting some guarantee against disorder and anarchy; there is wanting a safeguard. The hate crime laws are that safeguard; they are sigil of that guarantee. And they are the surest sign that this diversity which we so vaunt in ourselves and so eagerly embrace and advocate, is in fact a great trial and encumbrance to us.
Once one has grown accustomed to seeing through the veils covering diversity, multiculturalism, and like amorphous ideals, one begins to perceive the sign of our basic lack of ease with our condition everywhere. Surely one of the most salient examples of our contemporary disease, is that virtue we have adopted to acclimatize ourselves to the very new kind of world we are building: namely, tolerance.
Tolerance is an odd name to apply to a virtue, particularly one indicating, as it has come to indicate, the open-minded acceptance of all human customs, usages, and ways. Given that we have nominated the crime against tolerance to be a crime of hate, it stands to reason that tolerance itself should be a form of love. Yet the word originally bespeaks quite a difference concept. Tolerance originally means abiding what is foreign and unpleasant; it means precisely the power of enduring with stoical dignity what one would rather avoid or emend. Yet the diversity which occasions our tolerance is surely not held to be an ill to which one must inure oneself; on the contrary, it is supposed to be a great boon, something to be celebrated insofar as it has been achieved, and encouraged insofar as it is deficient.
This is peculiar, but it is not all. Tolerance, in its original sense, implies a breaking point, a degree beyond which one is simply not able to go. Tolerance is a kind of threshold, and that is far from being merely its technical meaning. Yet tolerance as a contemporary political and social virtue is not allowed to possess any limits: one is not permitted to become intolerant, simply because the conditions of society have become so diversified that one can simply not any longer stand them. On the contrary, one must hold out—one must not even feel the necessity of “holding out”—one must be pleased with the tumult at one’s doorstep. Tolerance is not discretionary, and its adoption is not a function of the quantity of ethnic or “cultural” intermixing: it is the very sine qua non of contemporary society, and it is not permissible to reject it.
Any confrontation of the original specifically social use of the word tolerance with its current use must alert us once again to just how queer that contemporary use really is. The diversity we have come now to eulogize far past any of its evident merits was originally regarded much more modestly, as a trouble which decent and moderate men would meet by an act of will. Atimes, it was perceived, it would be necessary to abide new social elements whose presence could not originally be regarded as pleasant nor altogether even beneficial. But somewhere, it was determined instead that these differences were to be embraced and adored as differences; and at that point the word “tolerance” began its peculiar metamorphosis into the concept which we of today employ quite thoughtlessly to indicate things rather alien to the original acceptation.
Only there is a problem with all artificial social ideas, all constructs upon the natural ways of a given human being or human society: they are fundamentally prone to inner contradictions. And few so grave, I would aver, as that lurking in the heart of tolerance: for the contradiction sheathed within our most famous contemporary virtue, cannot help finally but culminate in its utter self-destruction.
Let us consider. We have said that tolerance, in its common use today, is much changed from its original acceptation: that tolerance today is understood as mandatory and boundless; that it presently indicates, not merely the allowance of ways and ideas we do not understand and cannot appreciate, but also respect for them. It does not suffice, for instance, to say that we do not like the Voodoo witch doctor down the road, that we think his world-view abhorrent and fallacious, that we consider his ways risible and detestable, but that we are for the good of the social order prepared to leave him well enough alone in his folly: nay, for this implies a degree of contempt and even hatred which our present liberals are not wont to tolerate. We must have outright respect for that Voodoo witch doctor, we must acknowledge that his worldview has no less reason than our own to exist.
That represents a decided change. The original meaning of tolerance was: the keeping of the social order by the decent and rational avoidance of unnecessary strife between incompatible perspectives. It was the pragmatic if not statesman-like insight that perfect homogeneity is neither possible nor desirable in this world, and that the result of this will be occasional intermixing of inimical philosophies, whose clashing can only be avoided by nourishing a universal preference for peace and civil rest. It was recognition, that is to say, of a human good above tolerance, which was the very guide and measure of tolerance. Its logic can be summed up thus: because order in society is preferable to disorder, it is necessary sometimes to live and let live.
The new tolerance, on the other hand, is the belief that this diversity is itself a good to be sought out and encouraged. The old tolerance could do as well without diversity, as with it; indeed, it was more at ease, the less it was exercised. The new tolerance without diversity becomes as a hoe without a garden, and loses all purpose, but clutters the yard and rusts away.
For this very reason, tolerance today faces a most peculiar challenge. The old tolerance fully preserved the original concept of tolerance: there really was a threshold, a breaking point, beyond which the old tolerance not only would not extend itself, but would be shamed to reach: in the face of certain worldviews, certain behaviors, certain ideas, the old tolerance would consider itself morally obliged to stop up and refuse entry, if not to draw the sword. That was a precept of justice to an older generation. The newer tolerance is not so clear on this point, but seems often to want to live and let live with a perfect indiscriminacy. Yet it must come to terms with the fact that not all worldviews are tolerant, and that a truly open society sooner or later will crash against a truly closed ethos. The burning question then becomes—whether to tolerate the intolerant.
There are but three positions that a proponent of tolerance may take up in response to this question: he may embrace a position of total tolerance; he may tolerate all except the intolerant; or he may take up a mixed and pragmatic middle position, permitting the intolerant until such a point as they become dangerous to society. An example of the last might be Germany’s position today with respect to the incipient but still impotent neo-Nazi political party within its borders.
Beginning with the last possibility first, I dearly doubt such a compromise can long be sustained in any contemporary society. It might be possible here and there, on specific questions, but it can never be the guiding principle of any present-day democracy. If one believes in tolerance, one has already committed oneself to a number of unspoken premises. One adheres in the first place to the philosophical underpinnings of the tolerant position: either one believes that there are no objectively demonstrable standards of right and wrong in this world, or else one believes that the tolerant attitude itself is the objectively demonstrable right attitude. Either one holds to tolerance from moral indeterminacy, not to say moral relativism, or else from a dogmatic belief in the justice of the open society. Neither of these positions is very compatible with the half-hearted tolerance which permits intolerant attitudes until they transform into intolerant actions; not the second, because intolerance reveals itself to the dogmatic liberal as erroneous and scandalous; not to the first because if there is no human good whatsoever, there is no final justification for the tolerant mindset, and no justifiable criterion to determine when it is right to intervene in the actions of other human beings.
In another essay, I have called the two forms of present-day tolerance soft tolerance and hard tolerance—soft tolerance being the view that all worldviews, all thinkable human positions or moralities, are of perfect rational equality one to the next; and hard tolerance being the view that the open-minded liberal position which worships at the alter of diversity is the morally correct position. I will not recapitulate here work I have already done elsewhere. The interested reader is invited to review the second part of my essay The Democratic Era. (A link is provided at the end of the present essay.) Here, it suffices to consider the likely end of each form of tolerance.
Soft tolerance, which refuses to draw moral boundaries of any sort, is incapable of differentiating between those worldviews which sustain it and those which harm it. It therefore cannot militate against those human beings who would militate against it; it opens its borders to, and casts the protection of its laws over, even such individuals as would shun and overthrow it; it blindly and often ingenuously nourishes the adder at its bosom. It tends to believe, without the first shred of real evidence for such a belief, that all human beings will be drawn to it in the long run by some invisible and inexplicable magnetism. It is weak because it can make no pronouncement regarding society or the world; it limits itself to exalting the virtues of openness, open-mindedness, and diversity, which prove at once to be but bland and vapid rules of order when confronted with the hard sharp colors of living moralities, and the ethics of peoples who still pronounce on good and bad, and know how to judge the ways of others. And it is only a matter of time before the feeble pastel of this meekly tolerant worldview is washed away completely from within, by some more vibrant and barbaric ethos which is not ashamed to take advantage of a weaker enemy, nor to feed at the rot of a dying tree. Soft tolerance will be replaced because it must be replaced; it is a kind of vacuum of custom, incapable of satisfying the hearts even of its own proponents. It has in the long run only two choices: it may destroy itself to make way for something more vigorous and vital, or it may be destroyed by another; but at foreign hands or at its own, it is doomed to perish.
Hard tolerance, on the other hand, is not so unarmed as its feebler brother. It holds indeed a clear and rigid standard for any who would habitate with it (and often enough, these standards are thrown farther afield than its home). It holds with crystalline severity that diversity is a boon to the world, and that in consequence intolerance against any given individual is the one unacceptable and immoral act, the one evil. It is tolerant toward all, except the intolerant; and it is intolerant toward none, except the intolerant. It would root out intolerance from the world, and it is not commonly squeamish in the use of any tactics which might help it to achieve this end.
There is nothing to prohibit the practical success of such a worldview. On the contrary, it seems almost the destiny of certain parts of today’s world to succumb to the poison of a despotic and statist kind of “tolerance,” which insinuates itself into the private life of all its citizens and manipulates their ideas and their actions through a cunning range of interventions. But in winning, this kind of tolerance, too, must lose: for in its victory it obliterates the one thing it claims to love above all.
Hard tolerance proposes from the first to be a specific outgrowth of a specific worldview: namely, the liberal-progressive worldview. It is inseparable from that worldview, and that worldview is inseparable from it. It is a host-like virtue, which permits all ethoi to live beneath its shield and shadow, on the single condition that everyone agrees to treat everyone else precisely as it dictates—namely, with tolerance. But all ethoi of all the world have their yea and nay; all have their intolerances, which are part and parcel of their very character and being. There is one and only one worldview characterized essentially by tolerance to all other worldviews: and that is the liberal-progressive worldview. In forcing all its guest-ethoi to bow before the dogma of tolerance, the liberal-progressive worldview compels them all to become, in essence, liberal-progressive. That which remains, when this transformation has been effected, is only the outward shell of diversity, a great pageant and masquerade which is but the rainbow masking of so much inner uniformity. By and by with the passing of the years even this outer display must fade to monotony—for the trappings of custom, without the life of custom, gradually become more trouble than they are worth, and will be sloughed off like so many rags and vestiges. Then all that will remain is the overwhelming, inescapable fact of gray homogeneity, broken up here and there by some dispirited and rootless effort toward self-distinguishment, or some sterile attempt at disinterment of buried traditions. Hard tolerance, every bit as much as soft tolerance, destroys itself in the end: but while soft tolerance does so by attaining its sacred diversity and being consumed by it, hard tolerance saps the substance from all viewpoints but its own, and so starves.
We are witnessing, in this drama of tolerance, one of the prime signs that the ecumenicalism which Christianity imposed on the Western idea of right and wrong, is failing, and must urgently be replaced with another, perhaps more ancient, conception of human virtue.
MAY THOSE WHO CAN, interpret these signs. The day of tolerance is at its end, so far as our wider society is concerned. One knows this because tolerance has become the principle excuse of extremists and ideologues. That is sign of desperation. Tolerance has lost its power to persuade our reason, because its contradictions have become too salient; as result, those who hold to it yet have no further recourse but violence. That is a great opportunity for all who object to the tyranny of tolerance and who resist the conclusions of egalitarianism. But it is also hazardous.
Times of crisis are times of crisis precisely for some failure in the ground beneath us, some imperfection in the underfices, some trouble in the foundations or the framing of our very house. They are thus times of extreme jeopardy and wild uncertainty, as everyone knows and everyone feels. But precisely to the degree they are times of uncertainty and jeopardy, they are also times of hope—hope because in overhauling the underpinnings, one is liable to strike deeper and sturdier rock to build upon; hope also because, when even this fails, there is opportunity to sink entirely new foundations, and to build them truer to the test.
To prepare us for this work, I would propose a virtue for our day, a nobler and cleaner substitute for this failing ideal of “tolerance.” We children of today, alas, are too faint of spirit and pale of mind, our blood too thin and our hearts too soft and small, to bear the virtue that I intend. Yet some, I think, will not find my proposals too strange or alien. It is for them that I write.
Here, in the mouth of one of the ancients, we find clear representation of what I mean by magnanimity:
The Magi are very different from all other men and also from the priests and the Egyptians. For the latter scruple to kill any living thing, save such animals as they sacrifice. But the Magi with their own hands kill everything but dog and man, and they vie mightily with one another in so doing, killing alike ants and snakes and everything that creeps or flies. So far as this custom goes, let it be as it has ever been.
So Herodotus, with my italics, in Book I, 140 of his History.
I call his stance here, magnanimous. That is a noble virtue, which judges simultaneously as it comprehends, but sees no connection whatever between the judgement “This is base, low, simple, unequal,” and the response, “This then must be changed.” He who refuses to judge is often weak; but weak is he also who believes he must alter what he judges, or level all rough places so that he can take his strolls more pleasantly. There is hidden scorn in tolerance; there is hidden resentment in the shrill preachments of the tolerant moralists. But magnanimity looks down on this, and looks down as well on the wide diversity of human ways, and says, with due contempt and dismissal—“Ho! That is a mean way of living, or dirty, or base; but it is fit to its patron, who is what he is and cannot be other. Then let it be as it has ever been.”
Sensitive like a babe is that tolerance which says, “You must not judge, for my feelings do not take kindly to it, and you are liable to injure me or someone else. Therefore be silent, and help me sponge hate from the face of things.” But magnanimity looks on intolerance and smiles, saying, “What is it to me, if you think I am wrong? Truly, as things stand, I am sure that you are wrong. Yet I do not hate you; why should I hate one such as you? Argue your point, or let the matter lie. I will go my own way in any case. You, too, may go your own—so long as it does not cross mine!”
Tolerance must eradicate diversity, or be eradicated by it: but magnanimity permits of true variety, by supposing, “My way, by my troth, is the best way, so far as I know anything of it; but it is my way, and not for everyone. Better, then, that there are so many other and contradictory and lesser ways in this world! For even as it should be inequitable to fit every human form to one and the same shirt, or every human head to one and the same idea, so it is the pith of injustice to suppose one and the same virtue for every human soul. Some are greater, and some are lesser; woe to him who would have it otherwise!”
There are no boundaries to tolerance; therefore it houses its enemies and becomes its own sacrifice. But the realm of magnanimity is measured out by one’s strength as against the strength of one’s enemies, and the magnanimous man knows when to put away the aloof and smiling glance and to stand hard against his foes, arrayed if necessary with select steel. Magnanimity does not overextend itself, for it does not float on fantasy, but rests on the solid ground of self-awareness. Tolerance makes one complacent, for one is content merely to live and let live, and so never has cause to test oneself; magnanimity is keen, for it recognizes as well the point at which it is bad to sit idly by, and good to put oneself to the proof.
Tolerance, truly, is a virtue for him who has no others. It is the quiet and speechless capitulation to one’s own smallness and humility, the easy excuse for all one’s sins, shortcomings, and deficiencies. Too often, tolerance seems to beg, “I will not judge you, if you will not judge me!” Magnanimity meanwhile cannot exist in the small soul without being the death of the same; it is therefore a virtue for him who is richly endowed with virtues. It is, as Aristotle said, the crown of the virtues; without excellence to serve as the brow to bear it, it will but slump.
Magnanimity is just virtue for a proud and upright and free people. It is one of those virtues, which one must deserve. As for tolerance—that is but an idea, taken up or thrown aside like a scarf, fit for any neck which would like to hang in it. One can adopt tolerance without reflecting; but magnanimity requires constant balancing, constant weighing, constant judgement. One can choose to be tolerant; one must will to be magnanimous. For that precisely, it is a virtue fit for the crumbling of the times.
1. Herodotus’ History, one of the masterpieces of the era of great historians. Herodotus’s perspective is beautiful. His work is oft remembered for its enigmatic proclamation that “Custom is king.”
2. The Fourth Book of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, in which magnanimity (in this translation inadequately rendered as “pride”) is considered.
3. My prior consideration of the problem of tolerance in our day can be found in the second part of my essay “The Democratic Era,” in the section entitled “Chyrabdis and Skylla.”