Thursday, December 1, 2011

In Defense of Intolerance

Recently, a neighbour asked me whether I was tolerant; of course, I answered that I was. A few hours later though, upon reflection, it struck me that the reason this question arose was that there may have been a suspicion from his side that I was not tolerant. Intolerance is perceived as unacceptable in our society and that is probably why I instinctively answered the way I did. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced of the need for intolerance.

Today in the West we think we all are tolerant. We are convinced we only know tolerant people, and that we live in tolerant societies. We are proud of our supposedly all-encompassing tolerance, i.e. our acceptance of everything, even that of which we disapprove. We seem to treat intolerance like a deadly disease; something to be eschewed at any cost. It is as if, since it is a word with the prefix “in”, we should feel towards “intolerance” like we feel towards “injustice” or “infamy”. We place such importance on tolerance that we forget the inherent paradox of tolerance: we are so tolerant that we do not tolerate intolerance.

When we hear the word intolerance today, we do not think it concerns us because it usually reminds us of religious intolerance and, more particularly, of intolerance of the Islamic kind. It is true that the question of tolerance originally referred to religion; specifically the tolerance of Jews and Protestants in 16th century Catholic Europe. However, our first impressions regarding intolerance should not deceive us into drawing a conclusion that is too simplistic and even wrong. In other words, if we congratulate ourselves that we are so tolerant and if we insist on linking intolerance with religion, we will fail to perceive the importance of intolerance in our society and the benefit of intolerance in ourselves.

It is possible to define two different kinds of intolerance; political intolerance and what may be called “virtuous” intolerance. Political intolerance is that form of intolerance which is directed towards society, or part of society. It should be distinguished from virtuous intolerance which is intolerance at an individual level. Political intolerance can be seen in the strict sense as well as in the relative sense. In the strict sense, the importance of political intolerance can be quickly shown. If to be tolerant is the ability to accept everything, even that which one disapproves of, then it immediately becomes evident that all societies are intolerant, in particular the civil society. Since the civil society is based on the rule on law in order to assure security and protect private property, any violation of this rule, for instance in the form of murder, theft or fraud, should not only be disapproved of but also deemed unacceptable in this society and treated accordingly. In the strict sense then, civil society cannot be completely tolerant; on the contrary, its very existence requires that it also be politically intolerant.

The more intricate question is the consideration of political tolerance from a relative point of view. In this case, there are of course forms of political intolerance that should be lamented - if not outright condemned - in the tolerant society, notably the often misguided intolerance of the “other”. The intolerance of different groups or cultures, or of cultural and ethnic diversity within society, must inevitably be tolerated to some degree because man by nature tends to feel more comfortable with those individuals and groups that resemble him physically and culturally, than with those that do not. At the same time though, explicit xenophobia and racism should not be tolerated, not only because it is morally reprehensible, but because it is not in the interest of society or the individual. Indeed, such intolerance may often be pernicious to society and the individual, for instance by increasing inter-community tensions and violence. For example, the Nazi intolerance to Jews was unacceptable not only from a moral point of view, but also because it was not in the economic and social interest of the German society. The peaceful and tolerant co-existence of many diverse groups is often a sign of a strong, stable and confident society. Weak, unstable or insecure societies, on the other hand, often have more difficulty accomodating, accepting, and absorbing cultural or ethnic diversity. This may be the reason different groups in such societies are often perceived or presented by some as threats to national unity or development. Ironically, those who are intolerant to the “other” often also hold that their society is, or should be, strong and confident. The absurdity of their position is evident since by their intolerance they undermine their own political goals.

Political intolerance from a relative point of view should be seen as purely a result of convention. All civil societies, even the most progressive ones, are based not only on the rule of law, but also on custom. Custom dictates much of what the majority in society finds tolerable and intolerable (including also, to a certain extent, the aforementioned intolerance of the “other”). Thus the majority is tolerant of those deeds, attitudes and opinions that are customary, and intolerant of those that are not. It is possible to distinguish two types of such intolerable deeds, attitudes and opinions: those that are legal and those that are not. In the latter case, civil society establishes laws, rules, or regulations in order to punish what it is intolerant to. For instance, industrialised societies usually do not tolerate the exhibition of the naked body in public and often prosecutes such behaviour.

Indeed, illegal deeds, attitudes and opinions often depend on custom. When customs evolve, as they do quickly in a fast changing world, society may become tolerant to deeds, attitudes and opinions which it previously was intolerant to, and vice versa. The majority then each time loudly and openly congratulates itself how intolerant it has become to such and such new vice, or respectively, how tolerant it has become to such and such new virtue. There are many examples of the majority becoming intolerant where it was previously tolerant; e.g. capital punishment, smoking, the corporal punishment of children, Holocaust denial, or the short selling of stocks. In such cases, society makes illicit what it no longer tolerates. Conversely, there are also examples of the opposite situation; that is, of the majority becoming tolerant to deeds, attitudes and opinions which it before was intolerant to; e.g. communism, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, or the possession and consumption of certain drugs. In these cases, society decriminalises what it starts to tolerate. Thus at any given time, far from espousing only tolerance, in reality we find it perfectly acceptable that there are deeds, attitudes and opinions that are intolerable and illegal because they are not in accordance with the current custom of our society.

There are also deeds, attitudes and opinions which are legal but which society is intolerant to. This situation is more subtle than the previous one because this happens when the majority does not realise or does not admit that it is intolerant to deeds, attitudes or opinions of a minority. Intolerance of this kind is not loudly and openly proclaimed by the majority therefore, and this makes it difficult to detect. However, it is a quite common occurrence in all societies. An example of this intolerance is the frequent accusation in the USA that certain ideas are “un-American” when they do not correspond to a set of rather unclearly defined “American values”. This accusation is common in an environment that requires and rewards political correctness and sanctions deviant and original behavior, not least via peer pressure.[1] Reflexive intolerance is also evident when questions are raised for instance regarding the US relationship with Israel, regarding the actual need for security measures to protect the population against “terror”, or regarding the glaring omissions of the official report on the attacks of 9/11.[2] It is majority opinion that determines whether society is tolerant or intolerant. However, the majority can be feckle, irrational, and even plain wrong. There is therefore always an inherent danger, in any society, that the majority is intolerant to some deeds, attitudes and opinions that should be tolerated, not least because they are in the general interest of society.

The ideas of Herbert Marcuse are relevant in this respect. Marcuse noted that there are certain ideas which the majority is always intolerant to: those ideas which question the existing order of society. Like any organism, human society is not naturally prone to auto-criticism and will therefore tend to instinctively deny, or at least disregard, ideas that are intolerant of its prevailing order. For instance, the majorities in the welfare states of Europe are mostly intolerant to proposals for a radically different system of taxation and redistribution. Similarly, the majority and the mainstream media in the USA largely dismiss ideas which question a corporatist political order that favours entrenched vested interests. It is in the interest of society therefore, that the majority is unsuccessful in muffling such critical ideas, and even that it becomes tolerant to them. Thus Marcuse wrote in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that “the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.”[3]

The minority which expresses such aforementioned ideas should thus adopt an attitude of political intolerance towards what John Stuart Mill called the collective opinion, which the “tyranny of the majority” imposes, often inadvertently, on this minority.[4] The continued existence of an intolerant and sceptical minority, composed for instance of independent intellectuals, journalists, artists and writers, is thus essential to the tolerant society. Their intolerance is based on the fact that, as Leo Strauss noted, society is generally characterised more by opinion than by reason.[5] The individuals that belong to this minority are, therefore, by their inherent scepticism of majority opinion, the ultimate guardians of the tolerant society. Without them, without anyone rationally questioning the politically correct mainstream, society tends to become less tolerant and more slavish. We do our society a disfavour therefore, if we disregard the important role played by this politically intolerant minority.

This leads us to the other concept of intolerance, namely virtuous intolerance. For, in order for this minority to have some influence in society, the individuals that compose it must not only be politically intolerant. The men and women belonging to this minority should also develop another kind of intolerance in order to find the motivation to come together and exchange ideas. If they do not, they will be a minority only in number; that is, they will remain atomised and dispersed individuals whose lack of connection will limit their inspiration. They will have no common goals and they will be unable to reap the benefits of friendly Socratic dialogue: to test and polish their unexamined views. However, the need for the kind of intolerance that makes this possible is not often acknowledged and this perhaps helps to explain why many minorities are weak. The question then is how to practice such virtuous intolerance, since it is usually not contained in our education. We usually do not understand what this intolerance entails, since it is not promoted by society; most cultures and religions have traditionally focused on teaching tolerance (albeit quite unsuccessfully). In the modern secular world, we are implicitly taught that it is a virtue to be tolerant. Tolerance is seen, correctly, as fundamental for the existence of the pluralistic and peaceful society.

Considering the nature of man, tolerance can obviously never be universal. The more counter-intuitive point however, is that universal tolerance is not even desirable. If tolerance is a virtue, then the virtuous person should be tolerant. Yet, the virtuous person is not only an honest person of moral principle, but can also with reason be said to be a wise person who, in the Socratic tradition, makes efforts to improve himself in the search for truth. Such a virtuous person, or at least the person who strives to live virtuously, can never be fully tolerant of himself in the state he currently finds himself, if the object of the virtuous life is moral and intellectual development. The virtuous person must therefore at least practice a certain virtuous intolerance of himself.

In order to better understand this form of intolerance, we should start by conceding that even if we attempt to live virtuously, we cannot blame ourselves for those immutable weaknesses that Nature has given us. For instance, if we lack creativity or talent for music, or if we are not good with numbers, if we have an impulsive or shy disposition, we cannot hold that against ourselves. We should avoid being intolerant of faults and vices in ourselves that we cannot do anything about. However, we should not be tolerant of those of our shortcomings that depend on motivation and effort on our part. That is, virtuous intolerance consists in being intolerant of ourselves with respect to flaws in our person which we are able to soften with perseverance, and qualities that we are able to develop with diligence.

But it is necessary to go further. The person who is virtuously intolerant of himself should be intolerant towards that which he finds hinders him from living virtuously. Since man is a social animal, virtuous intolerance of the self necessarily leads then to some amount of virtuous intolerance of others as well. That is, he who is interested in practicing virtuous intolerance in himself cannot tolerate exactly to the same degree all persons and all circumstances. Indeed, he has an interest in not being tolerant of those persons and those circumstances which make it difficult or even impossible for him to live a virtuous life of moral and intellectual development. Such intolerance is required since, as Thoreau said, most social interactions consist mainly of  “hollow and ineffectual” conversation where “surface meets surface” and where intellectual depth is rarely encountered.[6] He should therefore gently and discreetly avoid certain persons and certain situations, not because he necessarily dislikes them or because they have done him harm, but because they distract him and bring him little value. Therefore, virtuous living in the Socratic tradition also requires virtuous intolerance in choosing carefully how and with whom we spend our time.

In the modern Western society, in which we have the time and the unprecedented opportunities to develop and improve ourselves, we should therefore be intolerant particularly of ignorance and laziness, because these are the two traits that are the least conducive to the virtuous life. These vices affect us both in ourselves and in others; they waste our time, they frustrate us, and they force us to compromise and to accept a lower standard. Though sometimes it may be unavoidable, there is no reason why we should always lower our own standard just because others have not made enough efforts to raise theirs. (Of course, a certain rejection of compromise can sometimes lead to minor difficulties, but this may have to be accepted.) If we tolerate philistines and sluggards, then we do not demand anything from them; we have low expectations of them. Tolerance is thus also in this case a form of condescension and depreciation of others. By tolerating the ignorant and the lazy, we seem to say that we do not expect them to ever become better than they currently are. To the person who does not practice virtuous intolerance, it seems satisfactory that others will never rise above mediocrity.

Many examples from every day life illustrate the interest in practicing virtuous intolerance and the obvious fact that few people do. Let us review one such example. For instance, though English is the default language of international communication in most of the world, the level is often surprisingly poor for many educated persons using English every day as a second language. Indeed, if a person is fluent in English and if he is tolerant, he is often forced to adapt the way he speaks or writes in order to be understood. He sometimes has to reduce the quality of his verbal or written communication for the sake of many people who, despite having had the opportunity, have not taken the time or the trouble to learn this language adequately. He is tolerant when he accepts to lower his standard of communication. He understands that other persons may not have had the motivation or priority to improve their knowledge of English. This example highlights clearly the need for virtuous intolerance. The excellent English speaker who practices virtuous intolerance refuses to lower his standard by degrading his own communication. That is, he practices intolerance by speaking English at his own level; he pays his interlocutors this compliment and he does not compromise. Obviously, this may lead in some cases to communication difficulties and possible misunderstandings, but these issues can be solved for instance by writing rather than speaking or by using a third party as go-between.

In conclusion, we may say therefore that society, i.e. the majority, should be politically tolerant of original and minoritary deeds, attitudes and opinions, but that the individual should practice virtuous intolerance towards what he believes is common, average and obvious. Unfortunately, too often the opposite is true: society tends to be politically intolerant, and individuals are generally not intolerant in the virtuous sense. Those who hold minority views have a particular interest in practicing virtuous intolerance. Though they are politically intolerant with regard to society, this is not enough; this minority will not be able to consolidate unless its members are also virtuously intolerant. Specifically, these men and women should discriminate their circle of acquaintances by preferring and seeking the company of like-minded individuals who will challenge them and give them the possibility to raise, not lower, their standard. Virtuous intolerance thus goes hand in hand with political intolerance because individuals who are politically intolerant to society need this kind of virtuous intolerance in order to form an efficient minority; so that their voices do not just drown in the senseless twitter of society. This is a prerequisite for the emergence of the intolerant minority that the tolerant society needs. Intolerance is not only a virtue in man therefore, but also a vital political necessity for the existence of the diverse and free society.


[1]See for instance, “Students are expects to read books, not burn them” by Brendan O’Neill, 18 November 2010. (

[2] See for instance, "The 9/11 Commission Report: A 571-Page Lie", by Dr. David Ray Griffin,

[3] H. Marcuse, Repressive Intolerance.

[4] Mill warned, in an often quoted sentence, that there is a need for “protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.” (J.S. Mill, On Liberty, p8, Everyman’s Library, 1992).

[5] L. Strauss, On a Forgotten Kind of Writing.

[6] H. D. Thoreau, Life without Principle.