How “tolerance” excludes everyone

How “tolerance” excludes everyone

Is there anyone who thinks that this world doesn’t need to change?  (Perhaps we feel the need for that change rather acutely after Wednesday night.  I sure do.)

We all want the world to be different–period.  That is, in one way or another we all find the status quo unacceptable.  We have in our minds some vision, whether conscious or not, of how we want the world to be.

If in fact we all want change of some sort, then it follows that the “tolerance” that is so often urged (preached?) in our culture can only lead to condemnation and exclusion.  For everyone.

Here’s why.

If all agree that change is needed (in some form or another), then we are all being “intolerant”:  we are saying that there are people–presumably “those people”–who really need get on board and change.

Thus, all who truly call for change–be it the progressivist who urges more “tolerance” or the fundamentalist who urges more “repentance” –are necessarily intolerant.

But who do these people think they are?  What gives them the right to call others to change?  How presumptuous.  How elitist.

How exclusive.

Ok, perhaps in response we say (and many really do say this), “Enough of being exclusive, enough of being intolerant.  I’m just going to keep to myself.”

That is, we jump off the bandwagon that urges (or, once again, preaches) “tolerance,” and we choose simply to be tolerant.  We will keep to ourselves.  We will not speak up.  We will not speak out.  We will not judge.  We will respect the decisions of others.

But this completely undermines our opening premise:  the world, we said, needs change.  (We pretty much all agreed on that one.)  But if the world needs changing, if things really, really can’t stay the same (because of a seemingly endless list of injustices–racism, sexism, exploitation, greed, corruption, etc.), can we really sit by and say/do nothing?

In a world desperately in need of change, isn’t being tolerant of everything an act of collusion?  If my life–if my words and my actions are not calling for change, am I not effectively saying, “Actually, the world really doesn’t need to change”?

To merely be tolerant, then, is to condone.  It is to do nothing in the face of injustice.  Let’s be honest:  it’s cowardice.  It’s being part of the problem.  For to be complacent is to be complicit.

So here are the two paths offered in the rhetoric of “tolerance”:  we either end up as elitists, condemning others for their intolerance; or we end up as cowards, condemning the exploited, oppressed and excluded to their doom (perhaps they deserved it, after all).

Either way we condemn.  And, therefore, we are all guilty of intolerance.  We all stand condemned, excluded by the rhetoric of “tolerance.”

How supremely ironic.

But irony aside, the social and political impact of the rhetoric of tolerance is huge.  While a few strangely feel the right to employ this rhetoric on others, most choose to remain silent; in fact, they feel condemned to silence–lest they open their mouths and risk being condemned for saying something intolerant.

But how, then, can civil discourse over difficult issues take place?  Such dialogue is surely crucial for real change to happen–the change that (we all say) needs to happen.  If I think the world needs to change and if I think of myself as included in that world (i.e., I need to change, too), it’s probably the case that someone needs to show me how I need to change.  But that can’t happen if there are no safe venues for those who (1) do not measure up, (2) yet want to change and (3) want others to help them.  (Btw, we just outlined Jesus’ definition of the church.)

A central myth of the rhetoric of tolerance is its claim to neutrality.  In this sense it is (perhaps ironically) modernistic:  it claims objectivity; it is somehow an authoritative non-authority.  It makes no overt authority claims and therefore appears neutral.

And surely what is neutral is harmless.  By definition what is neutral is indifferent:  it cannot condemn.

But, as we have seen, this is manifestly not the case.  The rhetoric of tolerance is incredibly (and inclusively!) condemning.

By contrast Jesus overtly–bluntly–said:  “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

So much for neutrality.

Jesus openly made claims of authority.  In fact, this is what amazed his listeners:  they were taken back because “he taught as one who had authority.”

But with this authority came something astonishing:  an authoritative welcome.

Claiming to be backed by heaven (“This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”), Jesus welcomed everyone, both the filthy and the Pharisee.  He actually claimed to do so on heaven’s behalf.  Little wonder that his followers considered Jesus’ authority something to celebrate (“Jesus is Lord!”).

But while the crowds were amazed by Jesus’ authority, the religious authorities were threatened by it:  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  They saw Jesus’ authority as dangerously subversive.

So which was it?  Was Jesus’ authority subversive or was it something to celebrate?

The answer, of course, is “Yes.”

Because Jesus would deeply agree with all of us that the world needs change, his invitation to all was also an ultimatum to all–as he makes clear again and again.  He called this invitation/ultimatum the gospel.  To encounter Jesus is to be confronted both with one’s allegiances (“Whose side am I on and why?”) and with one’s aspirations–with one’s vision for change (“What will bring human flourishing?”).

The rhetoric of “tolerance” overtly claims no authority and yet condemns us all.  Jesus overtly claims authority and welcomes all.

The universal recognition that the world needs to change begs an important question, a question that the rhetoric of “tolerance” hides ever so effectively:

Who has the authority to say what should (and shouldn’t) be tolerated?  Why them?

If our world is to change, could there be a more important question to ask?

3 thoughts on “How “tolerance” excludes everyone

  1. The philosophy of tolerance is born of profound but unarticulated confusion, much like moral therapeutic deism (as studied by Christian Smith). As you indicate, the “tolerance” that is so pervasive in our society is paradoxical.

    The other interesting thing about tolerance is it implies disagreement or disbelief. In order to tolerate someone else’s belief or action, you need to not explicitly condone or encourage it. In fact, you do not believe what they do. If you did, you wouldn’t need to tolerate it! Tolerance assumes a laissez-faire “whatever floats your boat” attitude toward morality. But moral relativism destroys communities; that is why even those who propagate this idea of “tolerance” do not abide moral relativism. They are just duplicitous; “tolerance” is really just “tolerance for what I think should be tolerated; intolerance for what I think shouldn’t be tolerated.” And it’s all covered under the pall of neutrality. Where this really springs from is the idolatry of the individual. Autonomy is god (truly god – arbiter of morality, foundation of community, sustainer of reality and all that matters. Nothing matters without the self).

    Tolerance is also a word that makes us feel comfortable. It allows us not to make a firm stand and say something is wrong. We tolerate it: hey man, you go your way, I’ll go mine. Why risk confrontation? Indeed, in a society that is rapidly losing any common language for discussing morality and meaning, we are also losing our means to appropriately confront one another about these issues. Often, we just talk past one another – because we’re not patient enough to listen, but also because we can’t even understand one another. We’re speaking different moral languages.

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