The Virtue of Intolerance
Posted by Jerry on July 12, 2007
In a private e-mail conversation with someone, I came to realize that the notion of tolerance has the connotation of adopting the moral high ground, of being an act of virtue that needs no explanation and no substantiation. The view seems to be that tolerance is unarguably a good thing–the implication being that to be intolerant is to be a tyrant.
The notion of tolerance comes in the whole package deal of other corrupted concepts like diversity, multiculturalism, extremism, moral complexities and grayness, etc. The problem with all of these is that their essential defining characteristics are removed from any context that make them meaningful. For example, “extremism” or to be an “extremist” is de facto an undesirable quality; its essential characteristic of holding one position to the utter exclusion of the other is divorced from the context of what the positions actually entail and why would that exclusive position be wrong.
However, the concept of tolerance suffers from an added unique distortion. Not only is the concept usually divorced from any particular context and is enshrined as an unquestioning companion of benevolence, tolerance is always used in the acquiescence of the bad and in a compromise of the good.
Notice how the good, the true, or the rational never requires toleration, it is only the opposite of these that do. No one ever tolerates the good while simultaneously identifying it as the good. However, the contradiction of “tolerating the good” escapes most people. When one is asked to “tolerate differences of opinion” or “diversity” one is implicitly branding the differences of opinion and diversity as bad. This not only corrupts the meaning of the concept “tolerance” by misusing it but also paints a broad brush over the concepts of diversity and opinion. If by rational and objective judgment, the opinions are valid and the diversity of people beneficial, then the question of tolerance simply does not arise. With regard to the good that is objectively identified, there is (and properly cannot be) any need for tolerance.
However, when a racist spouts hatred, I have the moral high ground in not tolerating his views and explicitly condemning him for it. To tolerate racist views is to betray your commitment to reason and justice. To tolerate evil is to shortchange on your commitment to the good. Ask yourself why would you need to ever tolerate something that was good and rational anyway? Then, why are you asked to tolerate the irrational, the untrue, the dishonest, and the evil? What virtue lies in tolerating these, and by what standard is it a virtue?
A virtue is that which you do to gain and keep your values. If you hold that the defense of your values (the act of keeping and protecting your values) is your moral obligation, then the condemnation and refusal to tolerate those that go against your values or directly threaten your values is merely a corollary of the same moral obligation. Intolerance is then a virtue when practiced in safeguarding your values.
Intolerance does not mean resorting to violence or the violation of rights but a clear and firm statement of denunciation, a refusal to sanction and endorse, and a commitment to not cooperate.