What tolerance is, and what it is not

1 Oct 2018


Two incidents, both with a stake in the tolerance debate, in fair Great Britain where we lay our scene. Except one is all about tolerance, and the other is not. The first is the UK’s decision in 2013 to legalise same-sex marriage, and the second is the headline in the Daily Mail on the 4th of November 2016, which described three Court of Appeal Judges as “Enemies of the People”. If you think you can guess which one is about tolerance and which one isn’t, you’re probably wrong. Because it’s the latter.


Tolerance is defined as “the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.” This shouldn’t be controversial, yet we have subtly allowed it to become so.


The word has slowly become synonymous with social liberalism rather than being allowed to stand tall in its own right. As such, parts of the left have claimed a monopoly on tolerance and used “intolerance” as a stick with which to beat their opponents.


Social liberalism is not the same as tolerance. The two concepts often overlap, since allowing people to do what they want tends to be more tolerant than banning them from doing so. However, tolerance is a far broader word, not just referring to views on social issues, but the tone and manner in which those views are expressed. And here, many so-called advocates of tolerance fall well short of the mark.


The key word in the definition is “dislike”. Tolerance is about accepting the validity of ideas one doesn’t like. Not ideas one was fine with anyway. Not ideas that one goes on parades in favour of.


When advocates of same-sex marriage or gender equality talk about how tolerant they are, I want to throw something at them very hard across the room. You’re not tolerant if you’re fine with the idea of same-sex marriage, for instance, and therefore support it, because it’s not an idea you dislike or disagree with.


The only way one can be tolerant on LGBTQ+ issues is if the issue of gay marriage or gay sex physically repulses them, but they support it anyway. That’s to say, if the thought of two men getting frisky fills a person with nausea, yet their moral compass tells them that what happens between two consenting adults in a bedroom is none of their business.


In short, big surprise! Tolerance doesn’t merely mean supporting something liberal. It means supporting something liberal despite hating it.


Whilst this has been an attack on the left thus far, it doesn’t have to be an ideological issue. Those on the right who zealously defend free speech and claim to be tolerant are often not tolerant at all in defending the rights of people they agree with anyway. We need to stop letting people hijack the word tolerance for their own political purposes and seek to re-emphasise what tolerance really is.


At every turn we encounter the depressing fact that for many, merely disagreeing with someone is enough both to despise them and insult them - “Racists”, “Remoaners”, “Gammon”, “Tory scum”, “Loony lefties”. The list is endless. Words are being invented by the day to slag off one’s political opponents in the nastiest way possible.


Any modicum of respect once present in political discourse for people one disagrees with is gone. This is the real tragedy of tolerance - that the “ability to tolerate ideas one dislikes” is no longer considered important at all.


Online trolling is another example. Attacks on moderate Labour MP’s by certain Corbynistas betray a deep intolerance embedded in hard-left politics by the very people who claim to be champions of tolerance. To give one example, the pregnant wife of a Tory MP who heckled Jeremy Corbyn during a speech in Parliament was told by a Twitter user “I hope your baby dies”.


An isolated incident from a nasty man, you might say. Except it isn’t. Horrific abuse has been directed at Laura Kuenssberg, Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger and Hilary Benn. John Mann, head of the all-Party Parliamentary group on anti-Semitism, was sent a dead bird through the post for having the temerity to call out anti-Semitism. These people are truly intolerant. Rather than engaging with the arguments and showing respect to those who bring them forward, keyboard warriors of hate cowardly hide behind their laptops to dish out vile abuse.


They see opinions they dislike, which is of course inevitable in civil discourse and political debate. However, the real test of tolerance is the response. Do you choose to discuss issues civilly, showing respect and understanding to people you disagree with? Or do you smear, attack and demonise, your political opponents? If it’s the latter, you can have any view you like on women’s rights, the LGBTQ+ community or the Single Market. You’re still an intolerant simpleton.


One shouldn’t show great respect to every belief one comes across, of course. “I see where you’re coming from and I respect it” should not be an epithet used with fascists, for instance. Or supporters of torturing children, for that matter. There are some things we should not be so civil about, rather should stand up to with passion and force, racism being an obvious example. Tolerance doesn’t mean respecting beliefs which deserve no respect. However, such black and white issues are rarities in a world of grey nuance.


It’s hard to believe I’ve written over 1000 words on tolerance without getting that wretched and nay-universally misattributed ‘Voltaire’ quote in, and now is probably my last chance. So here goes. In 1906 Evelyn Beatrice Hall (not Voltaire) said that tolerance is about “detesting what I say, but defending to the death my right to say it.”


If you’re basking in the warm glow of self-righteousness, go off and talk to a UKIP voter for an hour about multiculturalism without calling him a racist bigot. Then come back and tell me you’re tolerant.

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