I recently argued against the idea that tolerance was, in itself, a sign of good citizenship . We need to recognize that we should tolerate what should be tolerated, but not what shouldn’t.
Well, that’s a pretty open-ended formulation, and it’s helpful to make some distinctions, the most important of which is to distinguish between political tolerance and cultural tolerance.
Cultural tolerance means a disposition to look the other way when people behave badly. Somebody shows up at a wedding in jeans, or has music blaring on a summer evening. We’re tolerant if we disregard the offense; and we’re intolerant if we make a remark or give the person a dirty look.
No culture is infinitely tolerant, because the whole point of culture is to guide and shape behavior to accord with generally accepted norms. Today, it seems as though we endorse cultural tolerance, but we don’t. Exhibit A: someone who is judgmental gets denounced as a prude or as bourgeois.
Political tolerance is different. It involves restrain in the use of the coercive power of government. For example, the social consensus may heap shame on those who are judgmental about sexual promiscuity, condemning them as intolerant or as fundamentalists (that’s a popular term of abuse these days), but political tolerance requires us to hold back, refusing to use governmental power to punish or harass those whom we think misguided. The same held in the past, when premarital sex was censure socially, but not punished legally.
I’ve long admired John Stuart Mill, even though I disagree with a great deal of what he wrote. But in one area I think he’s done a great deal of mischief. In On Liberty , his most radical book, he talks about “experiments in living,” which he rightly sees as limited and restrained by the social consensus, even if permitted by as a matter of political right. The effect has been to confuse social with political tolerance.
As a result, many Americans cannot distinguish between political and social tolerance, imagining that one ought never to shame those whom one is unwilling to imprison, which is absurd.
There are many reasons to endorse a degree of political tolerance far greater than social tolerance. In the first place, a prudent person in a democratic society recognizes that the other side may gain the upper hand, and therefore a tradition of political tolerance functions something like an insurance policy.
But there are more noble reasons as well. It is very unlikely that a pluralistic, democratic society will coalesce around social norms that can be given straightforward from in legal codes. Therefore, it is wise to cultivate a political tradition of tolerance that allows for a capacious civic realm where debates can continue.
However, even political tolerance has proper limits. First Things was founded to fight against the secular refusal to tolerate the reasons and motivations of faith in political life. Richard John Neuhaus argued that faith serves as a crucial leaven in the public square. It should be tolerated, not because tolerance is always and everywhere a good thing, but because faith has a positive contribution to make.
So, it seems to me that tolerance should always have limits. It’s tautology that what should not be tolerated should not be tolerated, and it seems absurd to imagine that there is nothing that shouldn’t be tolerated. But we need to be careful when we think about the tools we use to express our intolerance. The mechanisms of shame are powerful, but they give a person room to live. The instruments of the state, by contrast, can crush a person’s life. That’s why we should be far more tolerant when it comes to laws than social norms.