On tolerance

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: It has become fashionable to champion diversity as if the idea and its practical manifestations are one in the same, both good and virtuous. This is wrong. Diversity, as a value, is important, good and necessary but not every actual difference in a society is therefore equally virtuous. Many things that are ‘different’ are anti-freedom. One needs to distinguish between allowing difference the space to flourish and evaluating and responding to that difference itself. If we fail to do that, tolerance suffers. It becomes a euphemism for blind acceptance, which is not its purpose.

On tolerance

By: Gareth van Onselen

8 January 2013

Over the centuries what fragile civilization humanity has forged has come generally to rest upon one of humankind’s greatest virtues: tolerance. If the history of progress is the story of how freedom has been expanded and augmented then one might well ask in turn: what is liberal thought if not an exposition of tolerance itself?

Despite this, all too often tolerance is made to fight to hold its ground, as a touchstone value, essential to any meaningful pursuit of the good life: made to fight not just against intolerance but for space in a market place of ideas where it has become fashionable to demand a license – of good, politically-correct standing – before one is able to attract an audience.

Why just tolerate something, when we can actually celebrate it, we are asked. Difference, we are told, must be cherished and embraced, not merely accommodated. And woe betide anyone who does not dance around the campfire, singing and clapping like the rest of us.

There is, inherent to this idea, a fundamental misunderstanding of tolerance and diversity. Tolerance allows for dissent (accommodation does not necessitate agreement); blind praise, however, allows for no such thing. And besides, often an absolute demand – be it praise or dissent – is nothing if not authoritarian itself, born of control, not freedom.

If we are to understand and benefit from the great value of diversity – make no mistake, it too is a wondrous thing – then we must be able to evaluate it and, through trial and error, reason and principle, distinguish that difference which does not threaten freedom from that which does; and to learn the appropriate lessons in each case.

The one thing tolerance should never accommodate is intolerance, a caveat the campfire dancers ignorantly trample upon; for their heads are raised to the sky, where they step of no real concern. Soon enough they will dance into the fire itself.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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