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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