The Problem of Tolerance

At its limits, tolerance can be explosive, deadly. In our readings about religious conflicts in colonial New England, we’ve seen that the stakes of differences of opinion could be raised to the point where those outside the envelope of acceptable beliefs could be banished or even killed. Remember that one of the primary sparks for the American Revolution was the passage of the “Intolerable Acts” in 1774.

We generally think of tolerance as sort of a warm, fuzzy affair, but its flipside, intolerance, suddenly takes us into an entirely different terrain. There comes a point when we simply can’t or won’t put up with whatever it is that falls across the line—and completely different rules apply.

We’ve been talking about the relationship between tolerance and liberty. Some things we are free to do, because the society can tolerate them. The intolerable must be prohibited. And the “must” here is probably not to strong. The truly in-tolerable is truly more than we can bear. It’s not a question of choice. We can take this as a sort of first axiom:

  • Within a given context, the truly intolerable will be opposed or avoided.

Now, we have to figure out what that gets us. We’ve been talking, perhaps unavoidably, about political freedom when we talk about liberty. In the US, where we are responsible as citizens to a strong legal system, and where other factors, such as religious sects or ethnic divisions, do not have the force they do in some other parts of the world, government is probably the first place we should look for clues to the limits of our freedoms. Our government, with its Bill of Rights and related laws, does something a little different than sift behaviors and conditions into the tolerable and the intolerable. Our freedom is actually define by through categories:

  1. that about which the government has not ruled;
  2. acts which are explicitly forbidden by law; and
  3. freedoms which are explicitly guaranteed by law.

The last two categories extablish the circumstances under which the government will intervene in our affairs, effectively establishing the legal limitations of our freedom. We’re all well aware that laws can change, and that the underlying social standards do in fact develop. That suggests that political toleration is not the same as the more-or-less visceral sort of tolerance we’ve just been talking about. As often as not, we’re not really talking about what we, as individuals, can tolerate, but what our institutions can tolerate. Our institutions presumably represent our collective preferences, or compromises regarding them. Hopefully, they serve to stave off the things we really can’t tolerate: starvations, widespread war, disease, disasters, catastrophic environmental degradation, etc. We hope as well that they contribute to the advancement of those conditions without which human life would be nearly intolerable—conditions we tend to call liberty or freedom, sometimes equality, equity or justice. Here, however, we are in the realm of choices, hopes, ambitions and aspirations. And we find that simple tolerance, laissez faire in its purest sense, may not get us all that we hope for.

This is important stuff: we are currently confronted with potentially conflicting impulses and discourses in the world. On the one hand, we are for breaking down barriers, “freeing” trade by eliminating impediments to the free flow of goods and capital, promoting regime change in nations with repressive governments. On the other hand, we’re aggressively regulating health issues, the clothes you can wear at school, the means you can choose to treat diseases in your own body. We’re promoting regime change in other sovereign nations, and only half-heartedly supporting democracy in regions where we might not like the peoples’ choices. And if we board an airplane, we’re all assumed to be potential shoe-bombers.

Security is one of the words we use to designate what we will tolerate, the degree of uncertainty we’re willing to live with. Liberty, particularly civil liberty, vs. security is something we are constantly asked to weigh in the balance.

Guaranteed liberties, with the force of government enforcement behind them, generally involve the curtailment of some other potential liberties. This isn’t by any means necessarily a bad thing. There are strong arguments, like Herbert Marcuse’s famous essay on Repressive Tolerance, how “tolerance” applied without any guiding standard can be indistinguishable from intolerance. (Marcuse is perhaps attempting to make his own intolerance seem more tolerant, but you’ll have to decide to what degree he succeeds.) In any event, even anarchist notions of “equal liberty” generally assume that people will have to work out limits, beyond which actions should be considered invasive of others’ rights, or contrary to some principle of justice. Having recognized that liberties can conflict with and constrain one another, we need some principles for bringing liberty-in-general into some sort of harmony with our need for security and our needs and preferences in the realm of tolerance.

P.-J. Proudhon famously said the “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of Order.” Plenty of conservatives have said exactly the opposite. You have to work your ways towards some general principle: do you value possibility, which comes always at the cost of “the possibility of the worst” (as Jacques Derrida has said) and freedom in its most general sense, which is a politically high-risk set of circumstances, or, do you value order and security? We work this stuff out in practical terms by deciding, for example, if the freedom to fly without fear of shoe-bombs is worth the imposition of taking off our shoes every time we board. And we scan the papers for information about whether or not TSA workers are actually doing their jobs, since, if they’re not, all our calculations are for naught.

We’ll return to all of this, but let’s start by contrasting the very simple realm of the actually intolerable with the much fuzzier business of determining our comfort levels. Think about how distance influences all of this. Think about the mediated nature of our experience. Putting aside partisan issues and patriotism for a moment, think about what 9/11, or the war in Iraq, or the more recent conflict in Lebanon actually mean to you. At the risk of asking one of those questions: How does it make you feel? And can you tell what is making you feel? Take a look at and this Iraqi mass graves memorial. Their appeals are rather different, as is the presentation of the material on each site. Can you cut through your first impressions to think about what is being represented, and figure out how to draw your own lines around the obvious horrors represented?

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2431 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.