Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Paradox of Tolerance

If tolerance (or acceptance, or approval) of others is a primary value, how is it to be applied to others who are themselves intolerant? To refuse to tolerate the intolerant is itself intolerant, but to tolerate the intolerant promotes intolerance at one remove. It seems that there is no simple answer. If perfect tolerance is unobtainable, or not obtainable through our own actions, we might at least seek to maximize such tolerance as can be achieved. This would require us to strike a balance of some sort between putting up with intolerant others, and protecting further others and ourselves from their intolerance. How such a balance should be struck would depend on the specific situation. If the intolerance of the intolerant expressed itself in mere unfriendliness, then little harm would come from leaving them alone. If it expressed itself in bombings and beheadings, this would require harsher measures to suppress - a more directly intolerant policy in order to produce an ultimately less intolerant result.

The current struggle between radical Islam and the West presents a crisis for the value of tolerance, not just as it competes with other values such as safety and democratic self-development, but also in competition with itself. Broadly speaking, the "nicer" we are to those who see themselves as lethal enemies of ours, the more we encourage their intimidation of ourselves and others, and the more we risk the ultimate destruction of tolerance itself. It is, of course, a matter of debate how dangerous these enemies have become, and which mix of policies (ignoring them, appeasing them, attacking them) works best to minimize their threat.

The paradox of tolerance is vivid in the matter of the recent Danish cartoons of Muhammed, the violent reaction in the Middle East, and the confused responses of the European press and Western governments. Here is a useful column on the issue by Mark Steyn: http://www.suntimes.com/output/steyn/cst-edt-steyn05.html

As Steyn knows, this is not just a question of cowardice or defiance. Imagine a domestic situation in which artists lampooned not merely Jesus or the Virgin Mary, who have long since been treated as fair game, but, say, Martin Luther King. Would or should domestic papers reprint anti-MLK cartoons (use your own imagination) to make a point about free speech, whether or not black Americans were threatening violence?

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