Thursday, 7 August 2014

How Tolerance Descends to Intolerance

Whilst reading Howard Rotberg’s Tolerism: The Ideology Revealed, I came across an interesting reference to Karl Popper, the Austrian/British philosopher:

“In a talk given on March 13th, 1981, entitled “Toleration and Intellectual Responsibility” and included in essay form in the book On Toleration edited by Susan Mendus and David S. Edwards, Popper noted that the exaggerated fear that those of us who are tolerant might indeed become intolerant leads to the “mistaken and dangerous” attitude that we must tolerate everything, certainly anything falling short of violence, but also (prophetically) a concern that the tolerant attitude might even extend to acts of violence. “ (p.8)

Liberalism is sometimes called the philosophy of tolerance and the father of liberalism, John Locke, was known as the philosopher of tolerance. Many of the ideas of classical liberalism were forged in the religious strife of 17th century England. The philosophy of tolerance held that no one can be sufficiently sure of their own viewpoint to engage in violence against others of differing viewpoints. It would be better if a state of mutual tolerance was established in which different viewpoints could be subjected to rational debate. Here lies the rational foundation for free speech.

Locke was also a key figure in the development of Empiricism. This was an approach to knowledge and truth which put the emphasis on observable evidence. This was a move away from different dogmas going head to head, determined to defend opposing viewpoints to the death, it was more rational to look for evidence to confirm one or the other theory. By taking this approach we could actually make real progress instead of being mired in fear and tyranny. This led to a great democratization of knowledge since any individual had the ability to prove anything by appeal to evidence and reason. It led us away from reliance on religious authority towards the self-reliance of individual reason.

Tolerance has therefore been a key feature of liberal societies, certainly as an aspiration, for many years. With the inclusion of multiple races and then multiple cultures in liberal societies, tolerance has crept up the scale of values to the point where it holds the leading position. In parallel with this we have become more and more afraid of our own intolerance. There is now a widespread fear of being intolerant.

The high premium placed on tolerance and the concomitant fear of intolerance have now encountered a rather unprecedented situation. As Muslims have migrated to liberal societies, bringing their adherence to Islam with them, we have seen a noticeable increase in manifestations of intolerance. This intolerance tends to have a clear correlation with the degree of adherence to Islam. Where adherence is mild, intolerance towards liberal norms is mild but as adherence to Islam intensifies so does intolerance to liberal norms.  The Salman Rushdie affair of 1989 was an important signal that many Muslims were comfortable with the idea of killing someone for what they had written. This is a clear rejection of liberal norms.

The Salman Rushdie episode also revealed the incapacity of a liberal society to meet the challenge of this type of intolerance. Incitement to murder was made publicly and on record but there were no legal consequences. Intolerance was tolerated. We had spent 300 years developing a culture of tolerance which appeared to have no way of countering the truly intolerant.

Since 1989 the extent of Muslim intolerance has become ever more evident. Not only are they prepared to murder as many people as they can for things which upset them, we have not even attempted to lay down any ground rules about the limits of our tolerance. Why have we been so afraid to draw a line in the sand and say, either live on our terms or get out?

I think one key reason is the fear of intolerance that Popper alluded to, and it’s not the intolerance of others that we fear, it’s our own. This is a principal cause of our paralysis in the face of Islamic aggression.

The same is not true for Muslims. They fear disloyalty to the group and consequences in the after-life.  The culture is openly and vehemently intolerant of many things.

The inevitable result is that as Muslim minorities grow and make ever-increasing demands on the tolerance of non-Muslims, non-Muslims make of toleration a virtue of ever-increasing value.

Two scare words in this context are “bigot” and “islamophobe”, which play upon our fear of our own intolerance. These terms are now so effective against us because in our culture of high tolerance we fear our own intolerance more than we fear the intolerance of our enemies.

With the philosophy of tolerance comes the practice of compromise. We expect to benefit from the tolerance of others in a similar way to how others benefit from our tolerance. Reciprocity is the key to it. It often means that we find a middle position between the parties on which to base a permanent settlement. This approach is incompatible with absolutist viewpoints. It is more relativistic: there’s a recognition that other people can have different ways of seeing things and we agree to differ – fairly amicably.

Liberals search for compromises. Even when a compromise is logically impossible liberals will continue searching for it. This is the case with respect to the Israel/Arab/Muslim conflict. There is no compromise available because Muslims will never accept the legitimacy of Israel.

Islam means “submission”; a Muslim is one who submits. Submission is what the Arabic root s-l-m means.

Tolerance and submission are different. They produce different cultural norms. When tolerance is one-sided and not reciprocated it becomes submission. This is what is happening in liberal cultures today. Submission to Islam and Muslim assertiveness is being rationalized as “tolerance”. However, tolerance of intolerance is de facto submission.

We now have to face what Popper called the “Paradox of Tolerance”, that is, when a tolerant society tolerates the intolerant to the extent of undermining the tolerant character of that society, then the society ceases to be a tolerant one.


  1. Superb article, thank you.

  2. Good info to ponder on.