Limits Of Tolerance

Writing in the 1955, Walter Lippmann already discerned that the US was approaching the limits of toleration and facing a crisis of civil discourse. In his Essays on the Public Philosophy, he writes:

“As we know from the variety and sharpness of schisms and sects in our time, we have gone beyond the limits of accommodation. We know, too, that as the divisions grow wider and more irreconcilable, there arise issues of loyalty with which the general principle of toleration is unable to cope. For the toleration of differences is possible only on the assumption that there is no vital threat to the community. Toleration is not, therefore, a sufficient principle for dealing with the diversity of opinions and beliefs” (172).

Toleration, he argued, depends on a “positive principle of accommodation,” which impels us to “find agreement beneath the differences” (172).

Even decades ago, Lippmann wasn’t sure if it was still possible to find such agreement, which is, he argued, the only foundation for public civility. He cites Sartre’s claim, “if I have done away with God the Father, someone is obliged to invent values . . . life has no meaning a priori . . . it is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”

Lippmann saw that Sartre wasn’t merely giving up belief in God but “the recognition that beyond our private worlds there is a public world to which we belong. If what is good, what is right, what is true, is only what the individual ‘chooses’ to ‘invent,’ then we are outside the traditions of civility. We are back in the war of all men against all men. There is left no ground for accommodation among the varieties of men; nor is there in this proclamation of anarchy a will to find an accommodation” (176).


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!