On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence
by Frank Furedi
Continuum, 224 pages, $22.95
The independent-minded British sociologist Frank Furedi has variously been a self-proclaimed revolutionary communist and a libertarian public intellectual. The last has led him to write On Tolerance, a critical analysis of a therapeutic and custodial liberalism he believes has collapsed into nanny-state tyranny, and a plea for the restoration of classical liberalism.
Tolerance, he argues, was originally at home in classical liberalism. Following Kant and John Stuart Mill, classical liberalism emphasized autonomy, understood as choice of a scheme of life based on the individual exercise of reason. Its goal was moral independence, which required freedom of discussion, and this freedom in turn required the exercise of tolerance, a willingness to hold or express radically different and even repugnant ideas.
As time passed, many people began to reject classical liberalism, largely because they began to see freedom as too risky and threatening to social order and to doubt that free discussion would lead to the necessary agreement about moral and political matters. Human life is full of uncertainties, and a consensus developed that only experts could be trusted to limit and manage them. Many also began to argue that, given differences in wealth and status, liberties like the formal right to free speech were less a safeguard of public debate than a way for the strong to get what they wanted. Our current campaign contribution restrictions reflect such concerns.
For these and other reasons, twentieth-century liberals dropped liberalism’s former emphasis on the free, self-guided individual. They became ever more protective of the weak and eventually came to identify autonomy and tolerance with “empowerment,” which means providing material resources and a supportive cultural environment that enable everyone to live safely in accordance with his own self-understanding.
Tolerance, which was once thought to require an open forum for strong judgments about ideas and conduct, thus became the opposite. It is now thought to require the protection of fragile personal identities rather than open debate. To say that homosexuality is immoral or that women are most fulfilled in their roles as mothers is censured as an intolerance that creates a “hostile environment.” The critical habit of mind, once a virtue, has become a vice. Tolerance has been “redeployed to deal with group conflicts.”
The new liberal tolerance, which the author rejects as confused or fraudulent, demands constant government intervention into private life. The state must regulate our speech and behavior to keep us from oppressing each other. We are required to tiptoe around the reactions of others, and this non-judgmental approach severely limits discussion and therefore informed and rational choice.
This paradoxical situation—suppression in the name of tolerance—is largely invisible to the people who now run things. They understand beliefs and ways of life as given by race, class, sex, sexual preference, and so on rather than as rationally chosen by individuals. It is not Frank Furedi the libertarian or former communist whose identity and sensibilities must be protected, but Frank Furedi the immigrant.
The separation of belief, culture, and way of life from rational choice causes pervasive problems. One is what the author calls the fossilization of identity: People are what they are, defined in terms of group identity. Black, gay, and Muslim identities become absolutes that others must celebrate, or at least accommodate. The alternative, we are told, would be conceptual, and perhaps physical, violence by the majority against helpless minorities. Therefore free discussion and debate becomes antithetical to modern liberal regimes of tolerance.
A further problem arises because the modern liberal consensus finds itself increasingly inarticulate about substantive moral and cultural convictions. The new “inclusive” tolerance does not permit us to talk about them rationally, for to do so might give offense. As a result, religious and cultural commitments are celebrated as sacred and untouchable but rejected as public arguments in favor of expert opinion and administrative convenience.
Overall, then, tolerance has become intolerant, reason dogmatic, and liberalism a tyrannical busybody. To all appearances, the liberal part of the liberal project has collapsed.
Furedi calls for the restoration of classical liberalism, but this response seems insufficient, if only because of evident weaknesses in classical liberalism, not least the inner instability that allowed it to evolve in the direction of liberal tyranny. He cannot discuss these weaknesses because his thinking remains entirely within classical liberalism. He wants to rehabilitate the acts of individual judgment and reasoned discrimination that were once at the heart of that view, for example, but offers no way to avoid the skepticism that led to their eclipse.
He therefore defends his position mainly by appealing to values that he expects his readers to share and by proclaiming their practical benefits, even though he accepts that classical liberalism can exist only if its principles are seen as superior to consensus and practicality. Given the predominance of the modern form of illiberal liberalism, that is not a strategy that will convince those not convinced already.
Although a former Marxist, the author fails to note the connection between contemporary liberalism and class domination. The rise of politically correct liberalism has coincided with increased economic and social inequality. That is not a coincidence, since contemporary liberalism concentrates power by disrupting institutions such as the family and church as well as subverting our common moral culture, all features of social life that enable ordinary people to live independently and restrain the ability of the wealthier and more powerful to force us to live in more easily managed and economically efficient ways.
These traditional arrangements have always depended on sexual ties and distinctions, and on particular cultural and religious traditions. Tolerance and inclusion, as now understood, attack the legitimacy of the often tacit judgments that support premodern institutions, and as people lose their trust in those judgments the institutions become less functional and less resistant to outside pressure. Meanwhile, the business, financial, bureaucratic, and media elites who dominate rationalized public institutions inherit the earth.
Furedi’s substantive goal—the restoration of moral independence—requires for its establishment a broader view than the liberal one, whether classical or modern. Tolerance presents itself as a simple and rational principle that benefits everyone by avoiding useless conflicts and unnecessary or impracticable restrictions, which in some circumstances is undoubtedly true. Nonetheless, a liberal order, like any other, exists by enforcing the authority of particular standards and understandings and is necessarily intolerant of what opposes them.
To take a topical example, contemporary liberals view sex as a private pursuit with great expressive possibilities, intrinsic to human happiness, but with no legitimate bearing on social organization because (we are told) nobody is harmed by the consensual sexual behavior of others. Accordingly, they believe that sexual freedom should be limited only by the principle of mutual consent, and view the acceptance of nonstandard sexual practices as an indispensable social goal. So strong is the imperative of acceptance that in several Western countries people have recently been subjected to criminal penalties merely for expressing the once conventional judgments of traditional sexual morality.
Social conservatives understand sex to be the basis of marriage and the family, absolutely fundamental institutions that, again, enable ordinary people to live decently and independently. The bedroom is not entirely private, because sexual behavior reflects and influences countless social realities: sex roles, demographics, family structures, conceptions of a life well lived, and more. For that reason social conservatives see sexual immorality as a threat to good human relations and social order, and they are inclined to penalize it, either in a formal way under the law, or more often with social censure and the daunting power of shame. They are intolerant, like contemporary liberals, but in a different direction.
Furedi, as an ardent classical liberal, rejects both approaches and insists on both free choice and free discussion in sexual matters. There are necessary limits to his libertarian partisanship, however. He calls for a “cultural orientation [that] discourages and restrains social intolerance,” which is itself a suppression of what he admits is a strong human tendency toward enforced social consensus. He thus wants a kind of beneficial intolerance that “discourages and restrains” intolerance, presumably based on “clarity as to the values that define society.”
This “clarity as to values” requires a certain dogmatism. The author notes, quoting Ronald Dworkin, that “‘in a culture of liberty’ the public ‘shares a sense, almost as a matter of secular religion, that certain freedoms are in principle exempt’ from the ‘ordinary process of balancing and regulation.’” It seems, then, that the author’s love of individual freedom and rationality leads him to favor, in the name of tolerance, what amount to socially authoritative, and therefore intolerant, quasi-religious principles that support those goals.
So we are back to suppression in the name of tolerance. There is something confused about the whole procedure. Surely it would be more illuminating and more useful to society to drop tolerance and freedom as ultimate standards, a role they cannot support, and to talk about substantive matters: the human goods toward which society might best be oriented and how those goods might best be realized. Isn’t that what is needed to achieve the moral clarity of which the author speaks?
James Kalb is a lawyer and author of The Tyranny of Liberalism.