The Limits of Tolerance

Attacks like the one we saw in the heart of London last week always set in motion a series of political spasms on the right and the left, the right decrying the lack of calling a spade a spade in the establishment media, in that the danger is posed not just by Islamist terrorism, or by fundamentalist Islam, but by Muslims in general who are here in too great numbers, the left by denouncing any questions or criticism directed to Islam or the customs and practices of Muslims in the UK or elsewhere as ‘Islamophobia’ and thereby beyond the pale and to be dismissed without consideration.

Beyond this predictable ruckus, the response of the country, the political classes and the media by and large have been measured and proportionate. But for the long term to preserve the peace and the arc of social development the nature and role of tolerance needs to be explored and buttressed with more considered arguments and perspectives than are normally encountered in political soundbites and the media.

This issue has become one of some urgency for democratic cultures which are under assault from two very different sources. One is the more obvious influx and settlement of cultures with a rapidly growing demographic profile – specifically, though not uniquely, Islam – which have little or no tradition of liberal democracy, have a generally low tolerance for dissent, and at their most extreme actively call for the abolition of secular institutions and the imposition of religious or other alien laws. The other is a hypertrophied form of tolerance ideology which has taken over large parts of the left, displacing the traditional championship of the working class with that of ethnic and lifestyle minorities, and threatening fundamental rights such as freedom of conscience and free speech, and thereby eroding the basis of real tolerance. Both these threats have been cited as important factors in the rise of populism.

Tolerance has long been touted as a particularly British virtue; however, all established democracies by their nature must have learned to value and to nurture it. A democratic culture cannot really be embedded in a nation unless people have made accommodation with fundamental difference of belief, outlook and lifestyle for the sake of a higher good – that is social peace and stability, which are fundamental conditions of prosperity. To underscore that point, it is only necessary to look at the lamentable state of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the institutions and practices of universal suffrage instituted by the Americans and their allies are permanently undermined by tribal affiliation and ethnic hatred based on religion, which reflects the broader conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. Throughout the region this hatred spills over into local and regional wars, mostly proxies for the major Islamic powers.

Clearly, then, tolerance is a good thing for society. But are there any limits to tolerance? The philosopher Karl Popper claimed that for the sake of tolerance it is necessary to be intolerant of intolerance. This perhaps establishes a logical benchmark without, however, taking us very far along the road of realistically understanding what tolerance is as a positive concept. This, however, has become the fundamental stance of British politicians in the post-9/11 era and time of mass immigration.  As the historian Eliane Glaser notes: “In recent years… the celebration of British tolerance has carried a coercive undertone. Indeed tolerance bears a growing resemblance to intolerance, as in a 2006 speech by Tony Blair in which he warned: ‘Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here’” (Glaser, 2014).

The situation is made more complex by that other form of intolerant tolerance on the political left, which embraces multiculturalism and identity politics. This form eschews the term ‘tolerance’ altogether, preferring words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’. This terminological difference is important for two reasons. One is that it separates these political standpoints from the older, religious context in which notions of tolerance developed in the UK, that is a specifically Christian context, and so frees them from the theological and moral baggage which that carries. Secondly, it is able to divest itself of the tone of disapproval implied by ‘tolerance’ and promote the virtues of acceptance, ‘embracing’ and even celebration.

Having, as it supposes, established an unassailable moral position, the advocates of multiculturalism and identity politics feel justified in compelling absolute conformity to its dictates and denouncing, with an endlessly extendable bastard lexicon, even the mildest criticism or deviation as forms of intolerance: racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia , disphobia, and so on. This denunciation even extends to welcoming and genuinely embracing the customs and traditions of outsiders, as ‘cultural appropriation’. This latter, if nothing else, reveals the Machiavellian heart of its politics, which is to champion distinction and separation, to perpetuate and elevate the status of victimhood, and to fragment the normative sense of national cultural identity.

For the reasons outlined above, I find the notion of tolerance defined as the negation of intolerance unsatisfactory. To understand the nature and limits of tolerance we can do worse than start with Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean. For Aristotle every virtue lies on a midpoint between vices defined by paucity and excess; for instance, bravery between cowardice and foolhardiness, or generosity between meanness and extravagance.  Tolerance, then, can usefully be understood to lie between the extremes of hatred of the other – genuine intolerance – and licentious indulgence of that which is exotic or transgressive.

It is also necessary though to explore the meaning of tolerance from the inside. It is often – it has become – confused with approval, but this is certainly not what tolerance implies in its original meaning. One may strongly, even violently, disapprove of someone’s beliefs or lifestyle, but suspend the impulse to coerce conformity, or even in extremis eradicate the irritant, for the sake of the greater good. It is a fact that the impulse to identify difference, which is the basis of all prejudice, suppression, oppression and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide, is unquenchable. Since this impulse cannot be eliminated individuals, communities and nations must learn and implement the practice of managing and controlling it. This is fundamentally what tolerance is.

Tolerance, though, does not exist in a vacuum, or without certain conditions. Interestingly, Japan, which is a stable democracy, one in which freedom of religion and political belief is institutionalised, is nevertheless not particularly tolerant of dissent at a societal level and a high premium is placed on conformity. Japan is almost an entirely monocultural society, whose religion is syncretistic, and has very low rates of immigration. This is definitely one route to stability, though it is increasingly rare in a highly mobile world; moreover, in the case of Japan this social stability is being maintained at the cost of economic stagnation and a moribund society. However, there is an important lesson to be learned from Japan: conformity to certain cultural values seems to be entirely compatible with tolerance of idiosyncrasy in other areas of life – indeed, there is a rich tradition of eccentricity in Japan, as there is in Britain, though it is rarely commented upon – and a case can be made that such conformity may be one of the important conditions of tolerance.

In this regard, it is sometimes said that Britain – particularly England – lacks a visible national culture to which we cleave, which is not true, although we do not have the overtly vibrant and colourful panoply of costume, dance, food and music that others share. However, Britain does have a democratic culture which goes much deeper than the periodic ritual of voting in elections, which even autocratic regimes mimic in an attempt to legitimise their uninterrupted rule. This culture rests on three largely invisible pillars of our culture which uphold our democratic way of life, and the democracies which have derived from the British tradition: the scientific method, individual liberty and the rule of law. In fact, these are not uniquely or characteristically British (although Britain was, by historical happenstance, an important crucible in their development), but requirements for anything that pretends to being a universal culture. They are also the foundational principles around which a debate about tolerance and intolerance can be drawn up.

Around these three principles I would say, there is absolutely no discussion and they should be the bedrock of our educational system and social institutions without compromise. However, while affirming those principles absolutely, that does not mean that there is no movement within them. Participation within the life of society means contributing to the actual content that they embody, ensuring the continual development of the society and its culture.

For example, there is a clear distinction between the scientific method and scientific knowledge. The content of scientific knowledge is continually updated based on research, and even longstanding and respected theories are challenged and overturned. There is no sacred knowledge in science. However, the scientific method is fundamental to the acquisition of valid knowledge. Although there are philosophical debates about the exact nature of the scientific method, there is no dispute about the fundamental role of theory and evidence, developed and applied with a rigour concomitant with the character of the research in question.

Similarly, we uphold the principle of the rule of law, which means that no one, however privileged, wealthy, famous or powerful, is above the law or beyond its reach. Yet, clearly the law evolves over time to reflect the changing complexion of society, its priorities and developments brought about by new technologies and changing demography, to update the concept of justice. While never perfect, there is a system of checks and balances in place, which means that the law attempts to serve the common good rather than the interests of vocal minorities. Clearly injustices occur, and sometimes these are systemic, but the system is self-correcting over the long term.

Democratic societies are by their nature highly individualistic. Contrary to the criticisms of some collectivist cultures, this does not mean that they are selfish and hedonistic; in fact, democratic societies are marked by a highly developed spirituality and morality in which respect is conferred to the individual soul, which is considered free and responsible. It is this concept, though, which is continually under attack from the enemies of democracy, who believe we must act and even think in accordance with their precepts, whether they be religious or political. For example, a lot of religious and political capital – on both left and right – has been invested in the hijab, as symbol of women’s oppression or expression of religious freedom. To this I would only comment that if designers were to make the hijab a fashion choice freely and widely adopted by British women based on beauty, style and convenience, I cannot see how anyone could reasonably object.

What should we do in the face of intolerance, of the kind that believes that a life not dedicated to their ideology is a life of no value, such as we saw demonstrated last week on Westminster Bridge? We should do as we have done: review our security arrangements and carry on as normal. Apply the law rigorously in the prosecution of illegal action. We should continue to apply our scientific reason to illuminate the dark areas of the soul in which irrational superstition can fester. Above all we should carefully apply the principle of individual liberty. Individuals are free and responsible for their actions, not their family, community, religion or ethic grouping. Even if all terrorists were Muslims, which is not the case, this does not carry the implication that all Muslims are terrorists. To reach that false inference is not just a breach of logic, but does violence to our democratic culture and its belief in individual liberty.

Are there limits to tolerance? Fundamentally, I would say no, as tolerance defines the sort of society we would like to continue to live in. Tolerance does not mean we agree and it does not mean we approve; but it does mean that we keep our disagreement, dislike or disgust of the other in check for the greater good of peace and stability in society. It is the function of the law, not my conscience, to determine where acts against the common good have been committed and to prosecute such acts. I also have my prejudices and my ignorance, which it is the role of evidence-based inquiry and rational discourse to dispel. But no law should compel me to love my neighbour, respect his beliefs or approve his lifestyle. These may come through engagement with individuals from diverse backgrounds, which any rational education should encourage us to do, but compulsion is toxic to the very concept and social realisation of tolerance.



Eliane Glaser, ‘Tolerance and Intolerance’, History Today Volume 64 Issue 2, February 2014.






One thought on “The Limits of Tolerance

  1. This doesn’t really address the points you were making in your blog, but I am becoming more and more interested in the right-wing similarities between the ‘opposing’ forces of anti-Muslim (say) EDL and anti-everything (including most Muslims) Islamist groups such as Da’esh.


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