In conversation about tolerance

by The Editor

SERIES: Two heads are better than one, or so the saying goes. Jacques Rousseau is a lecturer in critical thinking and ethics, as well as a columnist for the Daily Maverick and, in discussion with him, the series In Conversation will look to explore a key concept or development in a few email exchanges. Few ideas get more attention than in South African public debate than that of ‘tolerance’ – and, with it, the seemingly omnipresent idea of ‘offence’. We get offended a lot. Too much perhaps? In response, tolerance seems to have become an excuse to avoid the proper critical examination of bad ideas and poor thinking. These, among others, are some of the issues explored this week.

In Conversation

On tolerance

4 April 2012

Dear Jacques

I purchased the other day a copy of ‘Philosophy Bites’ – a book put together by the philosophical website with which I know you are familiar, comprising some of its best interactions with key philosophers about important ideas – and was struck in particular by an interview with Wendy Brown (Professor of Political Science at Berkley) about tolerance.

In it she notes the “enormous renaissance” tolerance has enjoyed as an idea since the 1990s and argues what she is concerned about is tolerance being “raised to a political principle and used as a substitute for discourses of justice, equality, or even freedom.” She says “when it is raised to the level of political principle of that sort, it usually cloaks the kinds of powers that are at issue. It cloaks inequalities; even sometimes substitutes for egalitarian projects”.

If you can listen to the interview, I would recommend it – it is on the Philosophy Bites website.

At any rate, I recognise this criticism all to well. It strikes me as exactly what has happened in South Africa – where ‘tolerance’ is used as an excuse to accommodate things that, actually, should not be tolerated at all. All in the name of political correctness and, a favourite bugbear of mine, not causing ‘offence’.

She uses the example of gay marriage to illustrate her point and Americans (Republicans mainly) who argue they are not for gay marriage but are prepared to ‘tolerate’ it. So tolerance becomes a virtuous mask behind which prejudice hides. She says this kind of misuse of the word is now so common place the idea is effectively tainted. And I know that attitude, on that very issue, applies to many in South Africa.

Now, of course basic tolerance is a virtue and by not tolerating something, one does not mean some sort of physical action should be taken against it (that is, unless you are talking about the violation of a fundamental right – we are talking about free speech here) but it does increasingly seem to be used as an excuse to make someone seem virtuous when in fact they are prejudice.

Would you agree this is a problem in South Africa? What do you think the cause is? Should something be done about it?


Dear Gareth,

One curious thing about tolerance is that we can deploy it as a weapon in the service of things like free speech and even equality, in the service of something like multiculturalism, but then it can also be used as a shield for protecting odious views. So it’s not just the sort of condescencion we see from Republicans on issues including gay marriage that you rightly make note of, but also from those who tell us that in the interests of tolerance, we should (for example) allow for societies to force women to be subservient to men. Here I think particularly of Sharia law in Britain, where tolerance can come to mean sacrificing our intuition that there is something universally wrong about gender discrimination.

To my mind, the idea of tolerance being a virtue is a reminder of intellectual humility – of never assuming you are certainly correct, and then ignoring opposing views. But beyond that (important) reminder, the problem is that tolerance – applied in some blanket fashion – quickly becomes indistinguishable from relativism, where we refrain from making any judgements at all. And this is of course a matter of political correctness – a critical voice with respect to some cultural practice is met with a “who are you to judge”, and similarly to our previous conversation regarding afro-pessimism, quickly leads to accusations of Eurocentricity or intolerance of some indigenous practice.

And there are lessons to be learnt from criticisms of this sort. Of most concern to me are issues that came to mind after first reading Berlin’s “Two conceptions of liberty”. He doesn’t make this point explicitly as far as I can recall, but one thing that his essay made me consider on first reading is that it’s relatively easy for liberal folk – often, unfortunately, speaking from positions of relative privilege, to appear smug and disdainful of the idea that anyone else could be genuinely offended by some violation or rejection of principles they hold dear. I feel quite secure in my ideas and arguments, and am relatively well equipped to address challenges to them. I don’t think that’s necessarily typical, though, in that my identity isn’t defined by some sort of inflexible belief in the value of any particular idea. Instead, the ideas I hold dear are the ones that seem best justified.

This is a luxury, and it points to one potential cause of insensitivity to criticism. Sometimes, a strongly held belief – whether contrary to evidence or not – is a fundamental part of one’s identity. And I do think that we could sometimes be more sensitive to this in the manner with which we criticise the beliefs of others. Free speech is certainly valuable – inestimably valuable – but people need to be willing to listen for your exercise of free speech to have any chance of persuading them, or even resulting in some dialogue with them. But tolerance needs to have its limits, in my view. Thought affects action, so we are entitled to be concerned with what people think, and say. Thoughts or speech acts aren’t equally praiseworthy, and while tolerance is good in principle, it doesn’t need to be equivalent to refraining from making judgements as to the value of the things thought or spoken.


Dear Jacques

I liked very much your point about relativism – that tolerance becomes something that negates judgement rather than necessitating it. And this, surely, is the key point? A.C. Grayling says the one thing the tolerant should never tolerate is intolerance; for him that – like the harm principle when talking about freedom of speech – is the one proviso on tolerance.

Of course the question then becomes, how does one demonstrate that opposition without giving room to blanket intolerance in the other direction?

For me simple opposition to an idea is often enough (when we are talking about debate and ideas). And I think this is where the confusion comes. People assume that tolerance also means uncritical acceptance. And, of course, that is wrong. One can tolerate a person’s right to articulate a view and, like any idea, ensure it enjoys a space where it can be expressed, but one does not have to tolerate the idea itself. That you can speak out against as strongly as you like.

Indeed, right minded democrats and those concerned with freedom have a duty in this regard.

So, and here’s a lateral take on the problem: how a society understands tolerance say a lot about it – does it see the requirement that one allow different ideas to exist as a reason not to be critical, or as the basis from which, through trial and error, best practice is identified and acted upon? I think this is where South Africans often fall short. So scared of we of causing offence, we don’t criticise enough problematic ideas and positions. And what that actually means, is that we tolerate too many attacks on freedom, all in the name of political correctness (which is actually what this kind of ‘tolerance’ is). This is for me the primary problem. The result is that tolerance has become a kind of censorship – an excuse to cover unconstitutional ideas in a veil of relativist plausibility.

It’s quite an indictment. But how does one fix the problem? A lot of this is caused by low self esteem – we are overly sensitive. You need to be quite secure to put your position into the public domain and accept criticism of it. Even more secure to adjust your position accordingly. Maybe we all just need to, to be provocative, grow up a bit?


Dear Gareth,

Intolerance could accused of defeating the very purpose of debate, which I imagine as at least including openness to the possibility that we are wrong, and that we should consider changing our minds. So I’d concur with Grayling – tolerating intolerance would to some extent be self-defeating (at least, it would be for those of us who value opportunities to discover our own errors). But here’s the problem – I suspect that many of the ideas we might like to oppose are held in such a strong (perhaps even dogmatic) fashion that this virtue (of allowing yourself to consider that you might be wrong) is absent in those who hold those ideas, or suppressed in favour of a political and rhetorical fervour. And when you’re in the minority – as liberals in this country surely are – it can be rather difficult to combat dogmatic ideas without appearing to be strident (which can be interpreted as intolerant).

I agree with most of what you say on how opposition should be demonstrated, but would want to expand on the form opposition might take. It can’t of course be simply saying something like “you’re wrong” (until, perhaps, the point in the argument is reached where giving up on persuasion is the only option) – opposition and arguments operate in a space of reasons, where we can be expected to justify what we say. (As an aside, if someone cannot justify their views, or willfully refuses to, when is it intolerant to cease conversation with that person? We have no duty to listen, but intolerance can be expressed in ceasing to listen too soon.)

So yes, we oppose ideas, but by presenting more reasonable alternatives – and where we have a responsibility to not simply assume that reasonableness, but to be able to persuade an (impartial) interlocutor of it. And they, as well as us, certainly don’t need to tolerate ideas simply for their own sake. Ideas are not equal. What we tolerate, and also respect, is the process by which debate and persuasion can take place. To continue on the path set by your “lateral take on the problem”: it often appears to be the case that people believe they have the right to not be offended. This (entirely groundless, in my view) right is then parleyed into requests or demands to refrain from criticism.

One way of addressing this problem that I’ve always found attractive is for us to work towards a greater separation of people’s ideas and their sense of self or identity. These aspects can never be entirely separate, to be sure, but we often seem to quick to read criticism of an idea as coinciding with a claim that a person is worthless or inferior. This is usually an error. Of course, if someone’s entire identity is bound up in unfounded ideas, there will be a point where character judgements become merited. But for most of us, most of the time, we do need to grow up and realise that we can be wrong, often are, and need to be willing to revisit certain ideas without thinking that doing so leaves us poorer – or even substantially different.


Dear Jacques

Some excellent points. In concluding, I want to say something about this idea of being dogmatic. You are quite right. South African public discourse is often defined by people talking past each other, so set are the two proponents in their various views. Indeed, it is a criticism often leveled against the DA: that it often acts just as dogmatically as the ANC, only in the other direction. But I regard it as a disingenuous way of gauging debate because the underlying assumption in that kind of criticism is, again, not aimed at the nature of what one says, but the way in which it is said.

The problem with that criticism becomes acute when one is objectively right, on an important issue, and the other side is deaf to it; even more so when the other side is authoritarian and so its disinterest in the facts is not driven by irrationality but by some kind of autocratic self interest. What does one do then? Continue to argue stridently? Or step on egg shells? In many respects South Africa is a frontier state – and the issues that define debate, fundamental. Often we are trying to understand the most important basic democratic rights. This is no time to be half-hearted.

It might seem like a cop-out to attribute the problem to something so vague as our general political environment but my point is merely that when it comes to dogmatism people shouldn’t paint every argument with the same brush. Some arguments are more important than others, as you rightly allude to in your answer, and worth being strident about. That does not mean forsaking reasonableness or tone, only never to compromise on principle for the sake of appeasement itself.

You raise a critical point in this regard, about separating identity from ideas (nice phrase that!). The two are often soldered together in South Africa, with some kind of seemingly unbreakable metal. Quite how we separate them is a bit beyond me, but I suspect, as I said before, it has something to do with self confidence. I suspect, when we become a country that suffers less low self esteem, we shall be less threatened by disagreement, more tolerant and, ultimately, more committed to free speech, in the best sense of the idea.


Dear Gareth,

As you rightfully point out, tone is a separate issue to that of content. When we stop listening to others because of perceived stridency, we eliminate any possibility of learning that they have something useful to say. But it’s also important to remember that it’s in our interests to give people incentive to listen, and this sometimes means tempering that stridency. This is perhaps unfortunate, but we don’t live in a world of dispassionate reason. As you say, some issues are of such fundamental importance – meriting stridency – but also often leading to the sort of offence that makes people stop listening. Finding just the right level of stridency, when merited, but without causing others to tune you out it a difficult task.

Which brings me what might be the key issue, namely education. I really can’t see any prospect of our “growing up”, and learning to have the sorts of debates which allow free speech, and don’t disguise intolerance behind a conception of tolerance, until we’re all at least minimally able to do two things. First, to have the tools by which to understand and engage with ideas on their merits, rather than as attacks on individuals (the point I made earlier about separating identity and ideas). Logic, scientific reasoning and the like are essential parts of our intellectual toolkits, but are often neglected in basic education. Second, education (whether formal or not – I really mean something more like an opportunity to engage with a world and ideas outside of the simple business of survival) often brings with it the intellectual humility which allows us to see the value of changing our minds, in that you start being able to conceive of the world in ways other than what it currently is. You start to be able to have complex aspirations and hopes, and to develop strategies to achieve those.

We can’t underestimate how important education is, but we should also remember that there’s no quick fix here – it takes generations to turn dysfunctional education systems around, and of course, it also takes enormous resources. South Africans are not equally endowed in this respect. So as much as I’ve focused on education, we can’t forget the importance of everybody enjoying at least enough economic power to be able to participate in and fully take advantage of education. But in the meanwhile, many of us who currently debate on matters such as those we’ve been discussing have at least some economic power and education, and could often do much better than we currently do to try to understand each other, dealing with the facts on their merits. That we don’t do so is to my mind often a simple matter of insecurity – if I don’t listen to any arguments telling me I’m wrong, then I must be right. And if this is the case, then it certainly seems as if a large part of the answer involves simply growing up.


Jacques Rousseau is a lecturer in critical thinking and ethics at the School of Management Studies, University of Cape Town, and the founder and Chairman of the Free Society Institute, a South African non-governmental organisation dedicated to defending free speech and the secular viewpoint against threats presented by religion, bad science and other forms of irrationality. He writes a weekly column for the Daily Maverick, and has a weblog at or by clicking here.

Gareth van Onselen works as the Democratic Alliance’s Director of Political Analysis and Development, but writes in his personal capacity. He writes a column for the Business Day on ideas and what they mean from a liberal perspective. He is the Editor of Inside Politics.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.