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Tolerance -- Not What It Used To Be
Rick Sutcliffe

"Is tolerance really the highest value?"

I looked up from slaving over a hot computer to see Nellie Hacker already sprawled sideways over a chair in the corner. I hadn't heard her enter my office.

"You could knock, you know."

"Why? Your door's always open, anyhow."

I sighed aloud. The article on generic programming could wait another for another day. "So who says tolerance is the highest value?"

"You know that ethics course with Samuels you made me take over at Humungous U? Well, he says that liberal tolerance is the only important value underlying modern civilization."

"Why tolerance and not some other virtue, Nellie?"

"Well, according to him neo-conservatism asserts some people are better than others, while socialism asserts that everybody is the same. He says both are untrue because people do manifestly differ from one another, but those differences cannot be judged by anyone, so they must be tolerated if society is to exist at all. Thus, liberal tolerance is the only virtue that matters, perhaps the only virtue in existence."

"You are simplifying a little, but I have heard Samuels' views; what do YOU think?"

"Too stereotyped."

"How so?"

"He dismisses conservative and socialist beliefs without seeming even to think about either one seriously, and he offers nothing in their place. "

"Doesn't he offer tolerance?"

"It's one thing to say that all people are of equal value. The Bible teaches that. I've heard you say 'the only race is the human race,' and 'there's no more importance to skin colour than to hair colour."

I nodded, encouraging her to go on. It was nice to hear that she had actually been listening the other day in my class when I'd thought she was asleep.

"But, it's quite another to say that all religious, moral, or even political beliefs are of equal value."

"Does he really say that?"

"Well, he says they ought all to be equally tolerated, which is the same thing."

"Not quite the same thing, Nellie. Liberal tolerance teaches that it is all right to disagree with the views or beliefs of another as long as you don't act on those beliefs to restrict the freedom of action and belief of others."

She gave me a withering look at that. "Sir, you know that belief and action can't be separated. Everyone's values are automatically reflected in what they do—otherwise a person's actions reveal they have different beliefs from what they say. Surely you've read the book of James."

I grinned at her. "So, why can't all beliefs be of equal value, Nellie?"

"Because then the beliefs and practices of murderers and child molesters are of the same value as everyone else. Because then there is no such thing as objective right and wrong. Because then there is not only no basis for law, there aren't any such things as either ethics or morality. Because the assertion that all values are equal is an explicit denial that God exists. Because..."

"Wait a minute, Nellie. The liberals say that tolerance is humanistic and neutral on theism."

"That's baloney, and you know it. You're just trying to get me riled."

"So, rile away." She would anyway, but I extended the invitation.

She looked at me as if I was a child rather than an agent provocateur. "If your highest value is tolerance, you are saying that there are no absolute values. That in turn is an explicit denial that a personal God with absolute standards of right and wrong even exists."

"Suppose that god is tolerance itself."


"Why so?" I relaxed in my chair as she got to her feet and began to pace as she lectured me.

"First, if there are no absolutes, how can tolerance be an absolute." She ticked off her points on her fingers.

"Second, if liberal tolerance is the highest virtue, then how can it not tolerate the idea that there are absolutes? Yet, liberal tolerance is manifestly narcissistic and does not tolerate any assertions of absolute truth. Say you know anything to be true, and liberal tolerance ostracizes you at once."

"Third, true tolerance would have to take the risk of tolerating intolerance, and the liberal version clearly does not."

"What does it tolerate, Nellie?"

"Only the liberal cause de jour, Sir. Things like feminism, socialist economic theories, homosexual advocacy, rights over responsibilities, vague spiritualism, and the rest of that lot."

"They all have something to say, Nellie," I pointed out.

"Sure they do, but in the liberal version of tolerance you daren't disagree with their favourite causes or you're exorciated as a bigot, a fool, an exploiter of the poor, or a 'phobe' of some kind. That's exactly my point. Entertain a dissenting opinion, and you cross the limits of their fake tolerance on the spot."

She concluded with a grand gesture. "Liberal tolerance is a fraud; it is self contradictory, and intolerant. It disqualifies itself from being the highest virtue. In fact, as a principle for belief and living, it's so bad, it isn't even wrong."

I smiled at Nellie's departing back, feeling quite tolerant for letting her have the last word. She's got a point, though. They don't make words like they used to.

--Rick Sutcliffe


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