Intolerance of Contemporary Tolerance

I recently finished reading D.A.Carson‘s excellent book, Intolerance of Tolerance.  It was a long time coming, with several starts and stops and re-starts along the way, but in the end it was well worthwhile.  The stops and starts were in no way reflective of the readability of the book.  It had more to do with my time, and demands requiring the reading of other things.  The book itself is a fascinating consideration of one of the most volatile foundations of our present cultural hostilities. At its essence, this book explores the radical difference of a very subtle shift in the definition and practice of the word tolerance.  As Carson points out, the tolerance has traditionally been understood to mean:

“accepting the existence of different views”


“recognizing and respecting others’ right to beliefs and practices without necessarily agreeing or sympathizing with them”

Pretty basic stuff in a free and pluralistic society, right?  It is this kind of understanding that causes a statement usually attributed to Voltaire to resonate with our sensibilities:

“I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Carson notes that the newer, active, definition presently employed by the majority of our culture, or at least by the cultural elite and the ivory towers is slightly different:

“the accepting of different views”

Given just a simple glance, this newer definition seems to be just a shortened version of the more traditional understanding.  But given adequate consideration we quickly see that there is a vast difference. Taken as is, this newer definition of tolerance assumes that all views are equal, equally valid, and should thus be equally embraced.  That is what “accepting” a view is, as opposed to accepting that people have a right to hold a view.  This “acceptance” is rooted in the postmodern notion that there is no truth; or at least that there is no true Truth; as Truth varies with individual experience.  But this idea is absurd; and those who claim to hold to it are hypocritical.

First the absurdity. Certainly our experiences effect the way we perceive the world, and even the the way we experience the verifiable truths of this world.  But the truths transcend mere experience.  Green is green, whether I am color blind or not.  Day is day; Summer is summer; 2 plus 2 is always four.  I have heard it said that What I experience is my Reality, but Truth is what IS regardless of how I relate to it.  Of course there are also complexities that effect the way we experience Truth, but Truth is … well, it just IS.  And since Truth just IS, then it is not possible for ALL ideas to be equally valid.  Sometimes we are just wrong. The fact that we have a right to be wrong in no way validates our wrongness.

Second, any attempt to embrace this new definition will inevitably lead to hypocrisy.  For example, to maintain that all views are equally valid would require one to embrace the philosophies of the KKK and the Nazi’s.  Any thinking person would obviously reject the core beliefs of these groups, as well as most of the the subsidiary views.  And rightly so.  Further, to assert that all views are in themselves equally valid would require a level of cognitive dissonance that allows the embracing of mutually exclusive views, as certainly there are many examples of conflicting beliefs.   The reality is that no one is capable of living out what this new definition of tolerance demands.  And those who claim to do so, in practice show their hypocrisy in their (right) rejection of some views (such as those of racists, etc.), and at the very least in their disdain for those who do not embrace their definition of tolerance.

Intolerance of Tolerance is a worthwhile read for anyone who wants to understand the roots of our present cultural hostilities. In the above video, Carson offers a lecture from the substance of the book.  Also of interest may be an an article excerpted from the book, Contemporary Tolerance is Intrinsically Intolerant.   intolerance

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