Jean-Louis David, étude pour le serment du jeu de paume (detail), 1790

Tolerance and debating

An essay on tolerance raises questions about equality, freedom and the meaning of intellectual confrontation.

In his recent article, [English here], Andreas Urs Sommer examines the notion of tolerance, how it is promoted and how its understanding has changed over recent decades.

First, the author notes that tolerance has drifted away from the specific to the general, from the particular opinion to the acceptation or rejection of a person as a whole. We could reply that in this sense, tolerance has evolved to reflect the modern citizen’s tendency to interiorize concepts. The famous marketing and advetisement motto “the medium is the message” has become, as far as social engagement is concerned, “the message is the medium”. Protesters turn into the t-shirts they wear, a clever slogan printed on a plain Fruits of the Loom t-shirt. They are an efficient conversation-starter, a cool one-liner, that nevertheless falls short of offering any concrete solution; yet those slogans become the subject of discussion, they get defended by their supporters as if they were complex socio-economical theories. In this context, it becomes really hard for someone to reject one particular slogan while at the same time tolerating the person as a whole. An attack, or rather an act of intolerance about a particular issue, automatically leads to a questioning of its opponent’s way of life, the long-term choices that have led them to defend simplistic and asinine propositions with such vehemence. We must add to that a growing tendency to liken attacks on a person’s opinions to attacks on the person itself: this widespread confusion between disagreement and personal hatred is fuelling this perceived loss of focus of intolerance, and makes it very hard for debaters who wish to exercise fine-grained tolerance on a more subtle level than “I disagree, so I don’t like you”. Perhaps then, must we first consider the state of our debating culture and the current understanding of activism, before even debating about tolerance. Finding a slogan, a catchy topic, is a starting point, the means of implementing social change, but by no means an end in itself. Anti-racist slogans are pointless if their only effect on society is to ban specific words from the language, without any effect on the xenophobic thought processes that underlie them.

R. A. Monvoisin, Séance du 9 thermidor ou la chute de Robespierre. 1837

Second, the author differentiates between opinions and fundamental characteristics. Tolerating the latter would make no sense, he argues, because the person could not change them even if they wanted to: we, as observers, wouldn’t have the freedom to not tolerate them. Sexual orientation or race are among the characteristics mentioned by the author, political opinions are given as an example of a changeable point of view. This clear-cut differentiation feels a bit naïve, and it falls short on discussing the interesting boundary between what can actually be changed and something that is “immutable”. Is sexual orientation truly immutable, even under drastic peer pressure or dramatic changes of life circumstances? And can you really change the political views of someone who has been thoroughly indoctrinated without resorting to unethical means? Actually, it’s never the ethnic origin itself that racist people attack in a person. Every islamophobe will tell you that there are “good Muslims”, more precisely, Muslims who have learned to look like them, talk like them and behave like them. The same goes for sexual orientation. It’s not hard imagining a moderate Catholic, right-leaning activist saying something like “I have nothing against gay people, but do they have to be so damn gaudy about it ?” Here again, it’s not the supposedly immutable characteristic, but indeed a changeable behaviour that is being attacked. An intolerant person is therefore simply someone who has a lower tolerance threshold than the accepted average.

This raises another interesting question. If a property of a person’s thought is mutable, then when should one stop tolerating it? When it becomes threatening, the author says. But some arguments or opinions will never become threatening. Take the example of a hypothetical, annoying Mormon friend of yours. How long will you let him talk about how amazing his religion is, and when will you start arguing with him? Not when he threatens you, but when he goes over the boundary of personal values. When he starts being rude, when you start feeling that his propaganda is starting to become indecent. It’s therefore not so much a perceived threat that should trigger our intolerance, as the feeling that another person is endangering the common debate with their unchecked proselytism. Again, it’s a matter of threshold. A very intolerant person will have the tendency of seeing adverse opinions as threatening (possibly because they are feeling socially, or intellectually, insecure), whereas a more tolerant one will accept most points of view as valid because they do not threaten him on a personal level. They might start pushing back however, if they feel that they are a threat to the common integrity of the debating space.

Jean-Joseph François Tassaert, Arrestation de Robespierre. 1794.

So is intolerance bad? We agree with the author when he says that it should depend on how it is used, and by whom. The article touches on, but does not explore in depth the idea that the language of (in)tolerance carries a very different meaning in a generally tolerant person and in an intolerant one. This heterogeneous mix of thresholds, in turn, asks the question of the attitude we should, as societies, adopt towards tolerance, or, to put it more precisely, of the tolerance thresholds we should choose. This question is not benign, as intolerance on a national level carries potentially heavy consequences: indeed, it can lead to changes in both immigration and foreign policy.

We should therefore agree on a common definition of what is tolerance, when to use it and when not. And we should admit that these thresholds should vary from person to person. Intolerance should be discouraged in very intolerant individuals, but encouraged in more tolerant ones. Because it is not intolerance itself that is harmful, it’s the way it is constantly used to suppress arguments instead of actually encouraging people to produce more of them. Intolerance is fundamentally a negative behaviour, and like all negative behaviours its main use in social debate is to provoke, to stir up the discussion, not to suppress it. (In extremely tolerant groups of people, it is tolerance itself, an inherently positive value, that becomes an inhibitor of constructive debating). M. Sommer gives an interesting example of the negative byproducts of excess tolerance: when people feel constrained to accept all opinions they encounter, even if some of them contradict each other. Why though, could we ask, is acknowledging all ideas bad even if they are opposing? If an idea is reasonably sound from a logical point of view, there is little reason a priori to reject it. That idea might be absurd and have little grounding in reality, yet it has found its way into someone’s mind and resonates with a (possibly small, but non-null) part of the public. Recognising an idea’s soundness is very different from validating it by weighing them using evidence and reasoning. We can recognise the existence of the idea that chemtrails are real and the opposing one that chemtrails are false. The evidence overwhelmingly reinforces the second one, yet the fact that a certain amount of the population chooses to ignore that evidence to believe in the former proposition has a non-negligible value from a sociological and psychological point of view.

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