The Tyranny of Tolerance

Review of The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D.A. Carson 

In 2008 Brendan Eich donated $1,000 to the campaign for California’s Proposition 8, a measure to ban same-sex marriage in that state. Six years later he was promoted to CEO of Mozilla, an internet company he helped found. Pro-gay-marriage activists called for a boycott of the company, successfully provoking a social-media furor over Eich’s supposed intolerance. Under intense pressure, Eich resigned.

The widely-noted incident would fit perfectly in Don Carson’s book The Intolerance of Tolerance, which was published in 2009, well before the Eich hoo-ha. Carson takes to task those who, in the name of tolerance, ostracize those who disagree with them. He points out the obvious and blatant bigotry, hypocrisy, and, yes, intolerance in punishing those who disagree with you under the guise of enforcing “tolerance.” 

The new tolerance, Carson argues, says “All views are valid. If you disagree that all views are valid, you’re a fascist.” He contrasts it with what tolerance used to mean–roughly, “You’re wrong, but I promise not to murder you anyway,” (my words, not his). The change from the older notion, which was a genuine virtue and a blessing, to the newer is stark and clear, which makes the blindness of the priesthood of the New Tolerance all the more grating.

What the denizens of New Tolerance fail to understand is that by insisting that all views are valid, they are not showing respect to all views: they are, rather, insulting them all equally. No truth-claim (that Christianity is true, for example, or that Muhammad is the true prophet) claims to be just one among many equally valid views. They claim to be exclusively true, and all others false. Saying that they are all equally valid is to assert that all of their claims of exclusive truth are false; it is to make a truth claim–notably, one that is supposedly superior to all other truth claims ever made. The arrogance is staggering.

Meanwhile, making an old-fashioned truth-claim is not disrespectful of others. It is far more respectful if I, as a Christian, tell a Muslim that I disagree with his religion but earnestly try to persuade him of the truth than if I simply give him a condescending smile and tell him that I’m happy if his faith “works for him.” At least as a Christian I agree there is something called the truth that is knowable and that we should zealously try to discover.

Carson punctuates his argument with dozens of anecdotes like Eich’s drawn from recent history in the U.S. and other western countries, which makes this an easy read. Carson is good at debate; he knows how to score a point and make it fairly and firmly without being mean or petty.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by this book. Carson unwisely mixes a rambling discussion of tolerance in Islamic countries in the middle of a book that is mostly about changing norms in postmodern western countries. The intolerance of conservative Islamic societies, which are almost uniformly hostile to women’s rights and religious freedom, is altogether a different issue than the intolerance of postmodernist societies. The collapse of the two in one book struck me as unhelpful, odd, and out of place. 

Secondly, I was unsure who this book was aimed at. Carson in ridiculously well-read and is unembarrassed about name-dropping philosophers and making casual reference to major cultural movements in western history without much explanation. These features make the book unsuitable for a beginner. But the book is too brief to be a serious or academic discussion of the major philosophical themes Carson teases, which makes the book too little for someone who wants more than a casual discussion. I fear the book will fall through the cracks between an audience that is intimidated by the weightier aspects of Carson’s writing and an audience that finds those aspects all too casual.

Nonetheless, this is a helpful discussion of an important current in contemporary culture. Carson is a voice of reason, argued with respect and intelligence, who not only gets the content right but also is a pretty good example of how to argue with charity and grace (although I am convinced nothing has ever been added to a piece of writing by the use of an exclamation mark, of which Carson uses far too many).

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  • ahermit

    I don’t think the people objecting to bigotry like Brendan Eich’s (or more recently Donald Sterling) are arguing that “all views are valid.” Quite the contrary.

    What’s being objected to in Eich’s case is an not just a belief on his part but an actual act in furtherance of that belief; his support for a bigoted political smear campaign which caused actual harm to some of the same people he was going to be in authority over; similarly Sterling was vilified for what is becoming less and less an accepted view; that African Americans are inferiors and that white people shouldn’t associate with them.

    Can opposition to intolerance and bigotry really be considered a form of intolerance itself? When people with bigoted attitudes lose the privilege to exercise that bigotry is that really a form of persecution?

    • Dorfl

      I had basically this reaction too. I think I’ve known two or three people in my entire life who believed “all views are valid” – and it was frankly a belief they held when involved in discussions requiring them to say something deep and insightful, and never used outside of that context. But for some reason lots of people seem to think “all views are valid” is a belief that’s actually held by large numbers of people, and that must be resisted. Much of the time, the underlying reasoning seems to boil down to “This guy disagrees with me. Clearly, he must not accept the concept of truth”.

  • Ken Abbott

    Ahermit: A few questions for you:

    1. What is bigotry? I know the dictionary definition; I’m interested in what you think the word means.

    2. What “actual harm” was caused by Mr. Eich’s monetary contribution in support of the passage of Proposition 8, which for practical purposes has never been in effect?

    3. If beliefs can have no effect on behaviors, of what value are they?

    • ahermit

      1. Bigotry here is the rigid ideological prejudice against a group of people based on some characteristic of that group (race, religion gender etc.)

      2 Apart from the harm of smearing same sex couples as a threat to civilization and a danger to children the prolonged fight over Prop 8 created legal obstacles and and financial difficulties for same sex couples in California, including some Mozilla developers and employees.

      3 I’m not sure what you’re getting at here; did I say beliefs have no effect on behaviour? I don’t think I did…

      • Ken Abbott

        1. “Rigid,” meaning unyielding, inflexible, and hard. “Ideological,” meaning that which pertains to a systematic body of concepts, especially concerning human life or culture; a coherent system of beliefs. “Prejudice,” meaning a preconceived judgment or opinion, typically negative, held without just grounds or before obtaining sufficient knowledge and typically held irrationally or with hostility toward an individual or group. So a bigot is one who holds inflexible, preconceived, uninformed, and irrational or hostile beliefs about other people according to a coherent system of thought, and not just ideas that might disagree with mine. After all, if a person has carefully thought through an issue, attempted to become as informed as possible or necessary, tries to avoid bias, and holds those arrived at beliefs rationally and without malice, is it fair of me to characterize him as a bigot?

        2. And yet–is not the legitimacy of marriage between two men or two women precisely what was at issue in the Proposition 8 debate? That legal obstacles and financial difficulties might obtain to those pursuing legalization of a status hitherto illegal in the state of California is hardly surprising. And were all persons, including Mr. Eich, supportive of Proposition 8 guilty of “smears,” or did they simply hold a set of ideas with which their opponents strongly disagreed?

        3. Your statement, “What’s being objected to in Eich’s case is an not just a belief on his part but an actual act in furtherance of that belief,” is what prompted my question about beliefs and behaviors. Perhaps I should have used “may” instead of “can” in order to be more clear. I read you as asserting that Mr. Eich acting on his legitimately held beliefs was objectionable–in other words, he may believe as he wishes privately but he cannot act upon those beliefs publicly. This is what I refer to as the “ghettoization” of thought and it is–or ought to be–inimical to a free society.

        • ahermit

          1. Yes, inflexible, preconceived, uninformed, and irrational or hostile
          beliefs about other people according to a coherent system of thought could fairly be described as bigoted (and I should be clear I try no to refer to people as bigots, recognizing that we all may hold such beliefs to some degree…it’s the belief itself not the individual we are discussing here.) I think is a fair representation of religiously based opposition to same sex marriage.

          2. Same sex marriage was on the brink of being legalized in California; Prop 8 delayed that, thus causing further hardship for same sex couples.

          And yes, anyone who contributes to a smear campaign can reasonably be held accountable for that campaign.

          3. Yes, acting on a bigoted belief in a way which cause hardship for others is objectionable. We recognize this when it comes to racial and religious discrimination. I don;t think it is inimical to a free society to object to acts in furtherance of racial segregation, for example.

          • Ken Abbott

            1. So religiously based opposition to same-sex marriage, no matter how a person arrives at that conviction, is fairly characterized as inflexible, preconceived, uninformed, and irrational or hostile. Okay, gotcha. I have a house that needs painting; may I borrow your very large broad brush, Ahermit? Alternatively, if I think your posts here have demonstrated inflexibility, preconceptions, lack of information, and irrationality, even hostility toward opponents of same-sex marriage, may I properly refer to you as a bigot?

            2. So we just cruised right on past the legitimacy question that was at the very heart of the debate.

            3. My point in all of this is that people will disagree, often strenuously, about important topics, and to label one’s opponents as bigots–a pejorative scare word that instantly delegitimizes the one so labelled–disrespects them as fellow human beings, cheapens the debate, and impoverishes the culture. It’s demagoguery. It does nothing to move the debate forward.

          • ahermit

            I have not labelled anyone as a bigot; I have characterized a particular kind of belief (ie that gays in the case of Eich or African Americans in the case of Sterling) should be discriminated against.

          • Ken Abbott

            Your original post: “[P]eople objecting to bigotry like Brendan Eich’s.”

            Per Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: Bigotry–the state of mind of a bigot; acts or beliefs characteristic of a bigot.

            Bigotry is not some amorphous thing floating around in the ether, Ahermit. Bigots and bigotry go together. You cannot label a belief or action “bigotry” without simultaneously labeling the source of the (alleged) bigotry a bigot.

          • ahermit

            Well take it that way if you want, it’s not what I said though.

            I gave you several links to articles outlining the actual harm done by the Prop 8 campaign and the vicious characterization of same sex couples as a danger to children and society. How can we characterize such a hateful, dishonest smear campaign as anything but bigoted? Is pointing out that dishonesty and the damage it causes really demagoguery?

            Is it also demagoguery to be opposed to racism, or sexism or anti-semitism and to characterize such beliefs as bigoted?

          • Ken Abbott

            I’m having difficulty parsing the linguistic difference between “Brendan Eich’s bigotry” and “Brendan Eich the bigot.” Perhaps you did not intend to call Eich a bigot, but that is the effect of your words.

            That excesses of rhetoric and even hateful displays occur in the intensity of political campaigns is nothing new. However, it is a very far reach to say that everyone who supported Proposition 8 in California agreed completely with the language and tactics of those who engaged in the “smear campaigns” to which you refer. That is guilt by association. Were there no overreaches of rhetoric committed by opponents of Proposition 8? I don’t excuse any extremism on either side, but neither would I condemn out of hand a principled stand on the issue either in support or opposition.

            No, it is not demagoguery just to oppose racism, anti-Semitism, or sexism; I have a hard time imaging a calm, reasoned, justly grounded hostility toward any human being solely on the basis of his or her color, ethnicity, or sex. But prejudices come in all stripes, and it is demagoguery to appeal to popular prejudices in these politically correct times to demonize those who think differently.

          • ahermit

            People are complicated, to reduce them to a single characteristic by labelling them as a bigot just becasue they hold one bigoted belief is unfair. I try to make that distinction; admittedly I don;t always succeed. I’m sure Brendan Eich has many fine qualities, but that doesn’t make his opposition to fair treatment for same sex couples any less bigoted.

            And it is bigotry to oppose equal access to all the legal rights and benefits attached to marriage for same sex couples simply because of their gender. I don;t agree that there is a truly principled stand to be made in opposition there any more than there was a principled position in opposition to mixed race marriage.

            The belief that homosexuals should be treated like second class citizen is every bit as odious as the belief that blacks or Jews should be treated that way.

            Someone who fights against their neighbour’s right to be treated equally under the law just becasue of who they are is acting on prejudice not principle.

          • Ken Abbott

            So how much bigotry qualifies someone for the status of bigot? Fifty percent? Eighty percent? Does a man have to be irredeemably 100% bigoted to hold the title? Or may he be fine five days a week and a bigot just on the weekends? Or alternate Thursdays? Help me out here.

            And here we are at the crux of the matter. You have conflated opposition to marriage for same-sex persons with opposition to mixed race marriage, or equated sexual preference with race. This is precisely the issue under dispute: Does sexual preference exist on the same human characteristic plane as race, biological sex, or ethnicity? That a person with same-sex attraction who engages in same-sex sexual activity should be denied basic human rights or civil rights that pertain to his/her racial, ethnic, or biological sexual status is unjust. The question is whether sexual preference constitutes in itself a distinct civil rights category. I rather doubt we’ll be able to settle this in this venue. Simply because this is a popular idea in some communities does not make it right (or wrong, for that matter).

            But I would like to invite you to re-examine your language. These are tense times. We would do well to extend to our fellow human beings with whom we disagree over important subjects some basic respect and the benefit of the doubt and not tar them with names that attribute thoughts and motives of which they may be entirely innocent.

          • ahermit

            Does sexual preference exist on the same human characteristic plane as race, biological sex, or ethnicity?

            Quite simply, yes. Yes it does.

            And even if you don’t accept that; if you believe it’s just a choice, well so is religious belief and we frown on discriminating on that basis as well, don’t we?

            Respect is a two way street. For those who have for so long been denied respect your pleas for tolerance now may ring a little hollow, don;t you think?

  • Shannon Menkveld

    You seem to be making an error here that I see quite often in Evangelical writings:

    There’s a huge difference between the statements “there is no absolute truth” and “I don’t think you, or any other human, know the absolute truth.”

    The tolerance that seems to offend many monotheists is the tolerance that says “the odds are that all of us are right in some areas and wrong in others, and our rightnesses and wrongnesses are all likely to be different.” I suspect that this is baked into any universalizing religion… but I don’t have to like it or agree with it, and I don’t.


    • Ken Abbott

      What happens when two “rightnesses” are contradictory? Both may be wrong, but they cannot both be right.

      • Shannon Menkveld

        Well, they cannot both be completely right. But metaphysics isn’t physics, and a human head is only so big… so there is a third option: we might well both have a small piece of “The Truth”.

        Given that we are both human, and thus both finite and limited, both humility and an understanding of the odds tend toward that conclusion.

        As a polytheist, this matches my experiences of both the mundane and the Divine. I suspect that for a monotheist, it’s a much less comfortable place to stand.


        • Ken Abbott

          You didn’t really answer my question. I asked what happens when what I believe is true and what you believe is true directly contradict one another? I know that you accept the law of noncontradiction, otherwise you wouldn’t bother posting here and attempting to make arguments.

          I fully appreciate that, being finite, humans cannot comprehend the totality of reality. But, given sufficient reason, we are able to apprehend correctly at least parts of it. As a monotheist, there is nothing the least bit uncomfortable about that for me.

          • Shannon Menkveld

            Sorry if I wasn’t clear.

            I would say that our comprehension is most incomplete in the spiritual / metaphysical realm. So, in areas where your beliefs and mine contradict, the most likely solution is that we are both wrong, at least in the limited sense that neither of us can credibly claim to have The Whole Truth ™.

            So it seems to me that there probably isn’t a contradiction in the first place… and the “law” of noncontradiction seems to me like more of a guideline when we’re dealing with spiritual things. All human descriptions of, and interactions with, the Divine have contradictions… which, if we’re dealing with Gods, shouldn’t really be a surprise. Even if, as I believe, the Gods do not fulfill all of the “three omnis”, They are beings, (whatever Their “true nature”, about which I am not qualified to have an opinion,) of vastly greater power and understanding than we… we shouldn’t expect Them to conform to our limited understandings.

            Even in the Bible, Yahweh tells His people different things about the nature of other Gods. He goes from “There are other Gods, but My people are not allowed to worship Them” to “I am the only God that exists,” and hits a few intermediate positions along the way.

            It’s not so clear-cut… which is what you’d expect when we humans interact with things that are much, much bigger than we are.


          • Ken Abbott

            “[T]he “law” of noncontradiction seems to me like more of a guideline when we’re dealing with spiritual things.”

            More of a guideline–kind of like the Pirate Code, eh?

            If I, as a convinced monotheist, state that there is, and has ever only been, one God, and you, as a convinced polytheist, state that there are more gods than one, we are speaking of spiritual things and we are definitely contradicting each other. There cannot be just one God and more than one god at the same time and in the same relationship. So it appears the law (no scare quotes) of noncontradiction applies, pirates be damned.

            You will not be surprised to learn that I dispute that God is inconsistent in his revelation to humans. There is such a thing as progressive revelation, in which subsequent knowledge imparts greater or more clear understanding of previous knowledge, and such is the case with the example you cited. See 1 Chronicles 16:25-26 on this point.