Tolerance and Anti-Orthodoxy

I APOLOGIZE for my elongated truancy.  I moved, got a new job, took the LSAT, began my law school application process, and spent four consecutive weekends out of town to coach moot court.  For this reason, I’ve been unable to sit down and write a post (though I’ve had many ideas).  I had no intention of writing tonight, but a particular interaction has impelled me to strike a few keys.

One of my friends posted a photo in protest of violence that has been directed against transgendered persons.  Despising a person simply on the basis of their being transgendered is immoral.  Moving from derision to violence against such a person is unconscionable.   However, the tone of the photo suggested that the answer to the extremes of derision and violence is unqualified acceptance because such persons are simply “being themselves.”  I made a couple of comments suggesting that we should also direct our energy against pathologies that would suggest to anyone that, in order to truly “be themselves,” they need to assume a different gender.  I also suggested that, while transgendered persons are deserving of our tolerance, that term should not be construed to include approval or affirmation because, in my opinion, to approve that choice is actually an unloving action.

You may disagree with me.  The proprietor of the post certainly did.  Instead of voicing her disagreement, though, she chose to delete every one of my comments (along with several others that I did not see), suggesting that they exemplified that “hate” that needed to be “wiped out.”  While I may be dead wrong when it comes to the merits of the issue (that isn’t what this post is about), it is unquestionable that my comments were mild, reserved, and even caring.  I found it particularly ironic that, in the context of a discussion that was posted in order to call for tolerance, the proprietor found it necessary to silence every contrary view rather than offer an answer.

It is imperative for our culture to develop a deeper understanding of tolerance and the ability to distinguish between true tolerance and that which masquerades as such.  In one sense, the foundational issue is so difficult because we don’t have separate verbs for the two.  Below is a paper that I wrote (a portion of which was delivered as a lecture at Patrick Henry College a few months ago) in order to begin elaborating on how tolerance may be rightly understood.  These words were written in order to bolster a previous argument—that religious liberty and tolerance (properly understood) are actually the descendents of Christian ideas about human nature which demand a degree of liberty of conscience.  In the absence of such ideas, I argue, tolerance loses its proper base and becomes simply another weapon in an ideological struggle for power.  Thus, the references to religious liberty are somewhat incomplete in this article, but I cannot complete them without drawing this to an intolerable length.

The primary difficulty in all discussions of tolerance, religious or otherwise, in our society lies in the constant equivocation on the term itself.  Different parties hold contrary definitions while assuming that the definition of tolerance is self-evident and, therefore, proceed to argue past one another, wondering in bewilderment why the other side will not see reason.  One explanation for this confusion is that, while tolerance has a single basic meaning, it may be applied in the public sphere or the private sphere with differing, context-dependent implications.  As a basic definition, tolerance should mean the recognition of another’s right to pursue and hold his own opinion, especially in matters of morality and politics.  Tolerance is an inherently passive quality—the tolerant man will refrain from some actions which might otherwise be his natural reaction to certain beliefs or practices which he believes to be wrong.  Tolerance never requires that a person actively support beliefs which he believes to be erroneous, nor does it require the tolerant person to admit that all other beliefs are of equal value.  Tolerance, instead, has a tempering effect upon a person’s own convictions, preventing them from too-rapidly motivating action which will lead to their imposition upon others.  A tolerant man may still believe that his opinions are the only correct ones.  He simply may not take action to prevent others from holding opinions which he deems to be incorrect.

In a liberal state, the government is expected to be very tolerant.  Beliefs themselves may never be proscribed.  If a belief begets an action which is harmful to others, that act may be categorically prohibited, but not because it is the fruit of a particular belief, only because of its adverse effect.  Private persons, on the other hand, may or may not be tolerant according to their own beliefs.  Since the requirement that a state must be tolerant means that it cannot prohibit a belief on the basis of the state’s judgment of that belief’s merit, the state cannot prohibit a belief which it deems to be intolerant.  Thus, private persons may hold certain beliefs which are mutually exclusive to other beliefs and they may take action to assert their beliefs in the hope that they achieve a measure of social acceptance.  It is equally true that private persons may be tolerant—private persons in liberal states are especially likely to affirm the value of tolerance, since the state’s tolerant stance invites a degree of pluralism which recommends private toleration.

Not only must the state refrain from prohibiting intolerant beliefs, it must refrain from imposing tolerance.  This is true for several reasons.  First, and most simply, the tolerance of the liberal government is usually a function of a constitutional requirement that the  government (1) respect the conscience of its citizens (“free exercise of religion” in the United States) and (2) that the state refrain from adopting a specific orthodoxy (“establishment of religion” in the United States).  In this way, the citizens, by means of their constitution, have taken a positive position that the state ought to be tolerant.  The people are able, through their exercise of popular sovereignty, to craft a requirement which is, in some degree, the fruit of a shared belief.  The basis of this belief may be utilitarian or moral but it exists in either case and its imperative to the state is clear.

The state may not, however, interpret its duty to be tolerant as a mandate to make the people tolerant.  First, because the people are not tolerant, and, if they are to demand tolerance of their government, they cannot be.  They proved this when they wrote a constitution which said, by implication, “we will not tolerate an intolerant state.”  If a person requires tolerance of another, they themselves are not wholly tolerant.  Such a paradox is problematic only when citizens do not tolerate others on the basis of their intolerance.  There is no logical problem with the people requiring a state, whose use of power is clearly delineated by the constitution, to exercise its constitutional power with the additional requirement that it shall never be intolerant of belief (though it may be intolerant of practices).  Secondly, the constitution is not an instrument by which the state may impose requirements upon the people, it is an instrument by which the people impose requirements upon the state, plain and simple.  Should the state decide that it must require tolerance of private entities, the state would necessarily violate the constitution because it has identified a group which it will not tolerate—those who it decides are intolerant.  The only sensible solution in a liberal state is true tolerance of beliefs, whether or not those beliefs are mutually exclusive.  The liberal state is required to leave the resolution of moral and religious debates to the people themselves since the people have not trusted it with the application of an orthodoxy. 

So, when I use the word tolerance, I will be signifying the passive meaning of the term which implies a universal respect for the right of others to their own opinions, not an expectation that each opinion is as valid as the next or that each person should be just as tolerance as the next (interestingly, each of these expectations is related by correlation, if not causation).  We do, therefore, need a word for that which carries an expectation that others recognize the validity of all opinions or that others tolerate each opinion to such an extent that they refrain from holding or expressing a viewpoint which is mutually exclusive to any other (this word would, for instance, represent the claim that a tolerant person cannot adhere to Christ’s statement in John 14:6).  I will signify this selective tolerance as anti-orthodoxy, because it essentially opposes all claims to truth which pretend to be universal or exclusive by supposing that even the adherence to such beliefs necessitates intolerance.  There is another reason that anti-orthodoxy is the proper term, and that is because anti-orthodoxy is itself an orthodoxy, but an orthodoxy with a single sentence in its catechism:  “Absolute truth does not exist or, if it does, its existence may neither be known certainly nor reliably communicated by man.”  Anti-orthodoxy relies on a claim that all orthodoxy is epistemologically obsolete because it improperly relies on universal truths which may neither be known nor communicated—yet, for its application, anti-orthodoxy must paradoxically presuppose that its own single claim must be true and capable of communication.  It is, therefore, properly called orthodoxy for its implicit truth claim (no matter how incoherent) and is properly described as anti for both its consistent opposition to other orthodoxies and its single assertion that no orthodoxy can be justified in human understanding.

Having drawn a distinction between tolerance and antiorthodoxy, I will now explain why the Enlightenment is the ancestor of the latter rather than the former.   While the Enlightenment featured a spirited debate between rationalist and empiricist thinkers, both camps featured a strong element of skepticism (whether it was the empiricist’s unwillingness to admit a priori knowledge or the application of methodological doubt by the followers of Descartes).  Several historians have suggested that it was the rise of skepticism which justified – or even necessitated – religious toleration.  Indeed, if man is truly incapable of achieving certain knowledge, especially knowledge of things like good and evil, it would seem foolhardy to allow the state to impose a rigid orthodoxy by force.

Attributing religious toleration to the rise of moral skepticism is, however, misguided.  Such a conclusion can seem valid only in the context of a culture which still sees the rules of logic as reliable and applicable.  Moral skepticism supplies the premise that different men with different experiences and circumstances will not always identify the same goods.  On this point Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Hume all agreed.   To work from this premise to a conclusion affirming religious toleration, however, requires the additional premise that men ought to be able to pursue the good which they identify through reason or that one man ought not be able to impose his personal understanding of good onto others.  These premises, however, could not be justified within the Enlightenment’s epistemological framework because this framework excluded the possibility of knowledge concerning a human essence and, therefore, of a human end, or telos.  Without knowing what man ought to be, it cannot be said what man ought to do.  In the wake of the Enlightenment’s failure to justify moral absolutes in secular terms, the West largely embraced an existential understanding of the self by which moral truths were emptied to personal values.

It is for this reason that our society is willing to extend tolerance to all groups except those which are intolerant, despite the illogic of this position.  Tolerance, in the postmodern moral framework which is a direct descendant of the Enlightenment, cannot be justified as a right on the basis of its necessity for man’s ability to pursue his end.  Instead, tolerance can only be expressed as a personal value which results from one’s own desire to be tolerated, arising from the denial of absolutes which characterizes anti-orthodoxy.  In this way, it is “logical” for anti-orthodoxy’s extension of tolerance to others to be contingent upon the tolerance which those groups themselves express, because, in truth, anti-orthodoxy is not the affirmation of a moral principle requiring tolerance, it is the pursuit of a value desiring tolerance.  Since anti-orthodoxy cannot recognize the value of orthodoxies because it affirms that all orthodoxies are useless at best and dangerous at worst, it will limit the application of its value, tolerance, to those groups which conform to the anti-orthodoxy and will, therefore, reciprocate the selective tolerance.  It is for this reason that, in her opinion in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, Justice Ginsburg wrote that it is “hard to imagine a more viewpoint-neutral policy” than one that prevents groups from expressing exclusive viewpoints.   When thoroughgoing skepticism is embraced, viewpoint-neutrality begins to mean the neutralization of all viewpoints and “tolerance” means the slow-but-sure destruction of all claims to exclusive truth.  Religious toleration, on this trajectory, would extend only to those religious positions which exhibit an equal degree of skepticism—a degree which is ultimately destructive of religious orthodoxy.

We must be extremely cautious that we do not fall into an understanding of tolerance that is really nothing more than antiorthodoxy.  The former is essential for our political, cultural, and spiritual well-being.  The latter, however, is a force of isolation and conflict that creates rifts that may prove ultimately unbridgeable.

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