Friday, September 25, 2009

The New Tolerance

For centuries, America has been known as a nation which places a high value on freedom, at least in theory. We've implemented those ideals rather poorly during various eras in our history, as historians and ancestors of slaves can attest, but the ideal of freedom has nevertheless formed the cornerstone of our system of government.

The idea of tolerance is closely connected with our emphasis on freedom. There have been obvious exceptions, but we've generally tried to live peacably with people with differing beliefs. I think that's admirable.

Unfortunately, the meaning of words sometimes mutates over time. Just as the word "gay" now has a radically different meaning from what it once meant to most people, the word "tolerance" has also come to mean something very different from what it once meant. There was a time when one could be regarded as tolerant without feeling pressured to abstain from saying controversial things. Vigorous debate was not forbidden, nor was criticism of others, provided that it didn't cross the line into obvious slander or libel. The phrase "political correctness" had not yet become a synonym for oppression of people who dared to think for themselves.

Obviously, that era has passed into the mists of history. These days, many liberals are likely to accuse one of being "intolerant" for no better reason than the fact that one openly admits that one believes in the existence of objective truth. In many circles, "tolerance" has become a synonym or code word for spineless moral relativism.

This makes things particularly difficult for theologically conservative Christians, since Christianity has always been a religion which has relied heavily on the idea that propositional truth can be understood and communicated with others. During the modern era, Christians have been accused of intolerance for no better reason than the fact that they have dared to articulate orthodox doctrinal beliefs, such as the idea that Jesus Christ offered the only way to salvation from sin.

I don't object to the type of tolerance which enables people with differing religious beliefs to live side by side without harming or killing one another. But I do object to the modern definition of tolerance, which is itself a form of oppression and intolerance.

That's one reason I so enjoyed reading a book entitled "The New Absolutes" by William D. Watkins. In that book, Watkins argues very persuasively that most people who claim to be moral relativists are guilty of misrepresenting their views. In fact, such people believe very much in an array of absolutes, many of which blatantly contradict the traditional Judeo-Christian absolutes on which Western civilization was founded. Moreover, such people seek to impose such values on others, through intimidation and propagandistic sleight-of-hand.

In his last and best chapter, entitled "A Plea for Intolerance", Watkins writes the following:
History teaches that cultural change for the common good is never wrought by the tolerant. Those who have been intolerant of racial injustice have brought about racial change. Those who have rejected religious hypocrisy have instituted religious revivals and reforms. Those valued all human life have even sacrificed their own lives for the good of others. Those who have stood against hatred and violence have brought about reconciliations and peace settlements. Those who have fought against ignorance have advanced education and the pursuit of knowledge. Advocates of the new tolerance could not have brought about social changes on these issues. A live-and-let-live stance is simply not conducive to social progress.
In other words, "intolerance" (in the sense in which it is now being used) is a code word for standing by and doing nothing while matters which badly need to be addressed go unaddressed. The "new tolerance" is a vote in favor of the status quo, no matter how appallingly bad that status quo might be in some respects.

There are things which are so evil that they ought not to be tolerated. Choosing to tolerate such things anyway is morally tantamount to condoning and perpetuating those evil things. There are times when we need to draw a line in the sand (as the American colonists did when they signed the Declaration of Independence) and say, "This far, and no further!"

Of course, there is a type of tolerance which ought to be encouraged and practiced. We all need to learn the difference between things which we can and should tolerate and things which we cannot and should not tolerate. In other words, we need to exercise mature self control and prudent discernment, instead of constantly "making mountains out of molehills".

Blanket condemnation of all types of intolerance precludes such discernment. It muzzles people who would speak out against wrongdoing and in favor of truth. Such a simplistic ideology glorifies tolerance as an end in itself, rather than acknowledging that tolerance is sometimes a virtue and sometimes a vice, depending on what is being tolerated and why.

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