Moving ‘Beyond Toleration’?
(Or: Is Toleration Despotic?)
The importance of moving ‘beyond toleration’ has become a catchcry of many contemporary writers and activists. Tariq Ramadan, for example, writes: ‘toleration is intellectual charity on the part of the powerful…and we must get beyond it. When standing on equal footing, one does not expect to be merely tolerated or grudgingly accepted: that others endure and ‘suffer’ one’s presence is inadequate for oneself and detrimental to them.’
This line of argument is not even particularly new. Over two centuries earlier Thomas Paine wrote that ‘toleration is not the opposite of intoleration, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms.’
This call to move ‘beyond toleration’ – what I will call the Despotism Challenge – is based on an understanding of toleration as forbearance. That is, it necessarily entails an objection to some aspect of a person or group, the power to hinder that person or group, and intentionally not doing so.
This challenge to toleration is certainly appealing: wouldn’t it be good to live in a world where nobody objects to other people, nor has the power to negatively interfere in their affairs?
But the Despotism Challenge faces a number of problems. First, it assumes toleration must always involve objection. But this is not true. To see why, let us look at our use of the adjective ‘tolerant’. Sometimes we may applaud someone for a particularly tolerant act – perhaps a parent not stopping their child going out ‘dressed like that’. In this case, there is clear objection and the power to do something about it. The toleration here is a form of forbearance.
But at other times, we use the adjective more generally. For example, the way we might describe a person, an institution (perhaps a university), or even a society as being very tolerant. In this second case, we do not normally mean there is a lot of objection not being acted upon, but that there is usually little or no objection at all – even if there remains the power to hinder. It is this general sense of toleration (in which objection is not a necessary feature) which best applies to liberal states and liberal societies. Here toleration is not necessarily a type of forbearance, it will primarily involve indifference. To be clear, this is not to say objection is never present, just that it is not a necessary feature of a general understanding of toleration.
The second problem with the Despotism Challenge is that forbearance tolerance (where objection is necessary) may on many occasions actually be normatively preferable to the alternatives. One of the implied (and sometimes explicitly stated) implications of the Despotism Challenge is that respect or recognition of difference is a much better alternative.
While perhaps this may be possible from the state or state-like institutions (although I argue against this elsewhere), how can we even make sense of this as a demand on individuals in a liberal society? If we accept the basic liberal ideal of letting people live as they wish as long as they don’t harm others, then such an ideal is deeply troubling. Surely what matters is that people respect each other’s rights regardless of their views about each other’s differences; in other words, they minimally engage in forbearance tolerance.
If the resect for difference alternative was achievable, then such a society would no longer be very diverse (the range of respectable differences is quite likely much narrower than that of tolerable differences), and it would be a society that did not take people’s beliefs very seriously. Of course, if diversity and freedom of belief do not matter and homogeneity is being aimed for, then perhaps this is a better alternative; but it is an alternative that does away with one of the most basic liberal ideals.
What about the state then? Tolerant states will mainly be indifferent to the ways of life of their citizenry, and when individuals or groups clearly want to harm others they should certainly be intolerant. But there are also many cases where the state should engage in forbearance tolerance. Groups that do not believe in the equal worth of individuals – whether they be racist, sexist or otherwise – clearly violate the liberal state’s values of justice. But the importance of freedom of conscience and of association would seem to give liberal states good reasons not to interfere, at least initially, with the activities of such groups. Once again, it is the practice of toleration that allows such freedom and diversity – even, or especially, of things many will find objectionable.
Contrary to the Despotism Challenge, toleration – in either form – is not despotic, nor need it be ‘moved beyond’. It is a vital minimum in the relations between citizens; and from a state-citizen perspective, it allows those who do not hold liberal values and practices the freedom to live their lives as they fit. If one thinks that these liberal freedoms matter, then it is not toleration that looks potentially despotic, but perhaps certain forms of respect.
Dr Peter Balint is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at UNSW Canberra. His most recent work is Respecting Toleration: Traditional Liberalism and Contemporary Diversity (Oxford, 2017). In 2011 he was a Visiting Fellow at the Morrell Centre for Toleration.