Why tolerance is a lousy virtue

Tolerance is a squirrelly virtue. At best it’s a schoolyard thing that only works if everyone agrees to play along. At worst, it’s a bludgeon to — ironically now — knock about people who disagree with you.

We all benefit from tolerance when we get the first kind. Elbow room to live and act as you please is nice. When it comes to the practice of faith, it’s even better — particularly if its absence means that you must operate in some sort of rebellion.

‘Curing’ fundamentalism

But the other kind seems increasingly problematic. The most recent example for me came when neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor suggested that we might cure fundamentalism by treating it like a mental illness.

“Someone who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology — we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance,” she said. “In many ways it could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage.”

I’m sorry, but did we just take a left turn into some dystopian novel from the previous century?

An incomplete virtue

Undoubtedly, there will be some foes of, say, radical Islam who see this as positive gain. It’s not. Such a new direction would cross any traditional faith, including Judaism and Christianity.

The problem is that tolerance is not a whole virtue. It relies on other virtues to fill it out and make its practice beneficial. Particularly, it relies on humility. Humility gives way and makes room. But when tolerance is coupled with pride, it becomes insistent and pushy.

Consequently, there is often an inverse relationship between how much one talks of tolerance and how much one actually exhibits. It becomes a slogan and a demand, the objects of its backward graces now apparently reduced to hordes of the mentally disturbed.

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  • This week, here in Germany, we are enjoying a entire week of tolerance focus by the state-run TV network (ARD). Everything, from news groups to chat forums, to entertainment situations (an entire movie devoted to tolerance) has been applied. Yesterday, the state-run radio network (HR3) ran a piece where some Burka-clad gal walked through the streets of Frankfurt to get reactions. Naturally, everyone was fairly negative and they tried to explain the tolerance concept to these people. It didn’t really work. Your piece is informative, when put up against this intellectual argument with no real weight and just a peer-pressure gimmick.