The Shifting Sands of Tolerance

In his new book The Intolerance of Tolerance, D. A. Carson rightly suggests that we “begin with dictionaries” to help us understand this shift that has occurred. As he looks at the computer-based dictionary Encarta Carson notices a slight shift from “ACCEPT EXISTENCE OF DIFFERENT VIEWS” to “ACCEPTANCE OF DIFFERENT VIEWS.” Then Carson observes the following:

This shift from “accepting the existence of different views” to “acceptance of different views,” from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people, is subtle in form, but massive in substance. To accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position  means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid. Thus we slide from the old tolerance to the new. (p. 2-3)

And later…

In other words, the older view of tolerance held either that truth is objective and can be known, and that the best way to uncover it is bold tolerance of those who disagree, since sooner or later the truth will probably win out; or that while truth can be known in some domains, it probably cannot be known in other domains, and that the wisest and least malignant course in such cases is benign tolerance grounded in the superior knowledge that recognizes our limitations. By contrast, the new tolerance argues that there is no view that is exclusively true. Strong opinions are nothing more than strong preferences for a particular version of reality, each version equally true….We must be tolerant, not because we cannot distinguish the right path from the wrong path, but because all paths are equally right.

If you begin with this new tolerance, and then elevate this view to the supreme position in the hierarchy of moral virtues, the supreme sin is intolerance. The trouble is that such intolerance, like the new tolerance, also takes on a new definition. Intolerance is no longer a refusal to allow contrary opinions to say their piece in public, but must be understood to be any questioning or contradicting the view that all opinions are equal in value, that all worldviews have equal worth, that all stances are equally valid. To question such postmodern axioms is by definition intolerant. (p. 11-12)

Then Carson wonders aloud:

If, however, the new tolerance evaluates all values and beliefs as positions worthy of respect, one may reasonably ask if this includes Nazism, Stalinism, and child sacrifice – or, for that matter, the respective stances of the Ku Klux Klan and other assorted ethnic supremacist groups….For the moment, it is enough to observe that under the aegis of this new tolerance, no absolutism is permitted, except for the absolute prohibition of absolutism. Tolerance rules, except that there must be no tolerance for those who disagree with this particular definition of tolerance. (p. 13)

The entire book is full of incredibly insightful material and is something you are going to want to put on your shelf. Though it isn’t long (only 175 pages) it is fairly dense and will possibly require reading sections repeatedly before one understand what the argument is all about. But gold is worth mining form. You can purchase it inexpensively here or peruse it a little more at Andy Naselli’s blog (Carson’s assistant who helped in the publication of this book).


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