Beneath the Ironic Mask of Tolerance

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Over the years the meaning of tolerance has shifted significantly. D.A. Carson notes this change well in his book, The Intolerance of Tolerance. This change has had a dramatic effect on our cultures’ approach to discrimination and diversity. Specifically, we have moved from a people that used to value truth to a people that value approval. Indeed, tolerance used to be centered around the following quote from Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Carson 6). In this case tolerance was needed for civil discussion to prevail. In other words, not only were disagreements inevitable, but strong (absolute) convictions were the norm.

Therefore, in order to remain humane in discussion forums, tolerance was needed. In that society, seeking truth was of upmost importance and therefore, a noncritical mind was seen as the ultimate vice. In other words, being able to unapologetically defend one’s position, while maturely questioning those who hold different beliefs, was a sign of intelligence and character. Now it is a sign of intolerance. “For such questioning, there is no tolerance whatsoever, for it is classed as intolerance and must therefore be condemned. It has become the supreme vice” (Carson 12). Questioning is seen as futile because to do so, makes a claim at absolute truth.

The claim to absolute truth is quickly being classified as intolerant too. Carson quotes Thomas A. Helmbock who said, “The definition of the new tolerance is that every individual’s beliefs, values, lifestyle, and perception of truth claims are equal…There is no hierarchy of truth. Your beliefs are equal, and all truth is relative” (12-13).

The power in the above statement would be minimal if it was not coupled with a claim to neutrality. Tolerance (the new version) has gained so much ground in this country because at first glance it seems fair, and neutral. However, a claim that there is no absolute truth, is just that, a claim. Therefore it is not a little ironic that the United Nations Declaration on Tolerance states, “Toleration…involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism” (12). Carson responds by writing,

“But why? Might one not hold a certain dogma to be correct, to hold it absolutely, while insisting that others have the right to hold conflicting things to be dogmatically true? Indeed, does not the assertion ‘Tolerance…involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism’ sound a little, well dogmatic and absolute” (12).

The danger is when an absolute movement does not allow any other absolute movements…because absolutes are not tolerant. It seems the plea to tolerance claims absolute innocence (through neutrality) and systematically silences those who disagree. To disagree is to be intolerant, and that, as we have learned, is the “supreme vice” of our day and age.

While Carson’s book addresses society as a whole, the implications of an improper and misguided understanding of tolerance are particularly harmful to many of America’s universities. The main consequence of dogmatically rejecting dogmatics in universities is that freedom of thought, debate, and thinking are vanishing. Universities were once a place of real discussion and debate. However, in fear of “offending” someone, “The new tolerance tends to avoid serious engagement over difficult moral issues, analyzing almost every issue on the one axis tolerant/intolerant, excluding all others from the pantheon of the virtuous who do not align with this axis” (15).

“… it’s important to understand why our peers must act out their beliefs, and therefore, must be given adequate space to obey their consciences.”

“… it’s important to understand why our peers must act out their beliefs, and therefore, must be given adequate space to obey their consciences.”

A case of this new tolerance was quite clear in an incident at Vanderbilt University. When a chapter of the Christian Legal Society operating on campus sought to fully exercise its rights as a religious student group, the administration refused to acknowledge CLS as an official campus group. They were stripped of all funding, and rejected a seat at the Student Group Fair (where most groups recruit new members). In the controversy that followed, campus meetings were held for students and faculty to discuss why the administration no longer acknowledged CLS as a valid student group. It seems that in an ironic effort to diversify student groups, Vanderbilt barred CLS because it chose its leaders on the basis of their faith.

This policy was labeled as “discriminatory” and deemed “intolerant”. However, isn’t discrimination good and necessary in some instances? Consider Carson’s thoughts on discrimination:

“Meanwhile the word ‘discrimination’ takes on the rhetorical power of ‘intolerance’, without any rational reflection on the fact that most human beings discriminate a dozen times a day, and the entire culture is awash in discrimination: we do not hire pedophiles as school principals, we do not appoint a functional illiterate to head up NASA, and so forth.”

Indeed, a sign of a critical mind is not a blatant and lazy use of the word “discrimination”, but instead a deeper and more mature understanding that there is both bad discrimination and good discrimination.

If we hope to enjoy the full beauty of diversity we must not try to contain the effects of said diversity. After all, diverse beliefs affect people. Beliefs affect everything from our morning routine to choosing a spouse, to picking a career. If we are to preserve diversity we must recognize that intolerance is not synonymous with judgment. In fact, we cannot fully appreciate the need for tolerance until we form our own judgments.

I often hear fellow students say, “Just keep an open mind.” At their best these students are citing Proverbs 18:13 “He who answers before listening–that is his folly and his shame.” However, this proverb implies that we should answer. We should make judgments, we should think critically, and then we should act on our judgments. Here it is appropriate to heed the reminder of D.A. Carson as he points to G.K. Chesterton,

“The purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth–to close it again on something solid. If ‘open mindedness’ is being defined as a refusal to make judgments about religious truth and sexual ethics (for instance) then we are prone to contracting a form of intellectual lock jaw.”

It is only once we relieve our minds of such ‘intellectual lock jaw’ that we can fully appreciate and encourage diversity. When we “close our mouths on something solid” it’s important to understand why our peers must act out their beliefs, and therefore, must be given adequate space to obey their consciences. Having completed this step, we may just find ourselves standing with Carson: appalled at the intolerance of modern day tolerance.

-David Hamilton is a senior at Hope College carrying a major in Business Management and a minor in Political Science. He is also a current intern at Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. After taking a brief hiatus from the academic world, David plans to attend law school in order to defend those who can’t defend themselves. You can follow his everyday thoughts at