Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Tolerance and Other Paradoxes

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. - Karl Popper
Reading the news the last few weeks has me thinking about tolerance. In a previous post, I wrote about how I had come to see the wisdom in my dad's contention that before people try to "love they neighbor" they should try to master "tolerate thy neighbor". It's simply a more attainable goal, and a glance at the news on any random day will tell you we haven't even gotten there yet. Walk before you run, and all that.

Of course, "first tolerate, then try to work your way up to love", isn't as simple and self-contained as it sounds. It can only go so far, because not everything should be tolerated. Some religions say we should feel compassion and even love for thieves, liars, and murderers, but they don't generally argue that we should tolerate what they do, and for good reason. You can't have a workable society which looks at a murderer and says, "Oh, that's just Joe. Sure, he stabs somebody every now and then, but that's just his personality, you know?"

So, if tolerance is going to be more than just a bumper sticker, we need to really think about its limits. Like most good things, it's only good in moderation. In fact, tolerance has the strange feature of being self-destructive when taken to an extreme. Take religious tolerance--many religious groups are intolerant of people who don't share their religion. Just yesterday, the Sunni extremist group ISIS killed dozens of people of the Yazidi faith after they refused to convert to Islam. Should ISIS' intolerance be tolerated? Surely not. If you tolerate active, violent intolerance, aren't you just promoting intolerance with your tolerance?

Tolerance, like the related concept of ethical/cultural relativism, self-destructs when taken too far. There may be a few college freshmen clinging to relativism hard enough to say we can't judge ISIS because what they're doing is right in the context of their culture. But what about the Yazidi culture, or the culture of the Chaldean Christians who are also in danger? Relativism and tolerance both have limits, and for similar reasons.

Tolerance, it seems, is a bit like oxygen. You have to have it, but only at appropriate levels. Raise the concentration too high, and things start to explode.

So how do you figure out what the appropriate level is? That's the hard part. Some people think the appropriate level is close to zero. This was the view in the Christian world for hundreds of years. Heretics were seen as endangering not just their own soul, but the souls of others, so killing and torturing them was considered the lesser evil. Tolerating them would have seemed like madness. After the Protestant revolution, people slowly began to realize that the religious diversity was here to stay, and started trying to figure out ways to live with it. People like Locke argued that it was useless to try to force belief on people anyway, because you can't. All you can do is make them say they believe a certain way. You've forced them to lie, and put yourself in a position of not knowing what they're thinking. This is a lesson the extreme PC crowd could still stand to learn: all you do when you suppress ideas is drive them underground, where you can't see what they're up to. This sets the stage for some nasty surprises in the future.

Later thinkers, notably John Stuart Mill, tried to find the appropriate line between freedom and tolerance on the one hand, and restriction and suppression on the other., with the Harm Principle. Mill, in an uncharacteristic burst of brevity, summed up this principle nicely: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

Put in the language of tolerance, this means society should tolerate individual actions up to the point where they interfere with the freedom of others. We can't tolerate active intolerance. If someone wants to say, "Eggplants have souls and it's wrong to eat them!", that should be tolerated. If he starts yanking people's eggplant parmesan off their tables, that should not be tolerated. As the old saying goes, "Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins."

The harm principle is wonderfully simple, and I find it pretty appealing. But it's not without problems, because the line between fists and noses can be surprisingly fuzzy. If a man develops a gambling problem, and his kids suffer because of it, his actions aren't just affecting him. If I decide to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, I can't honestly say that only affects me. I'm raising my chances of dying in an accident, and if that happened, it would affect my friends and family as well. Mill would probably say, "Yes, but that doesn't mean the law should get involved." Maybe that's true, but what if I wrecked and had massive head injuries, and couldn't pay the medical bills? Should society help me pay them? Some libertarians would say, "No way. You made your decision (as was your right), and you don't deserve to be helped."

But others don't want to live in a society where those who make stupid decisions are simply allowed to die. Who hasn't made a stupid decision, at least as a teenager? They would argue that it would be better to just require people to wear helmets and get medical insurance, because their decisions don't just effect them. So, the harm principle doesn't simplify everything as much as it first seems to. Even the phrase about your fist and my nose originated among temperance advocates arguing that alcohol should be regulated or outlawed, because drunkenness doesn't usually affect only the drunk. They thought alcohol was hitting too many innocent bystanders in the nose.

Still, I think the harm principle is a useful rule of thumb, and I tend to think we should err on the side of freedom, at least when it comes to individual actions. But I also want to suggest another rule of thumb. Let's call it the evidence principle. If I want to force another person to speak or act in a certain way (you can't really force people to think a certain way) then I should be able to provide real, empirical evidence to show that their actions are harmful to others. And appealing to tradition or scripture isn't good enough. Maybe the tradition or scripture is a good one, but if so, it should be possible to show why that's true. No intolerance without evidence, that's my slogan.

One of the places this principle could be best applied today is on the question of gay marriage. If you ask people why they oppose gay marriage, oftentimes they simply point to tradition or the Bible, as if that settles it. But it doesn't, because it may be that both are wrong. Slavery once had hundreds of years of tradition behind it (and you better believe people used that to argue in its favor) but that didn't make it right. Similarly, the Bible can be wrong. People may argue otherwise, but they don't really believe it. How many people are really going to say the following passage is something we should follow?
"If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear." - Deuteronomy 21:18-21
Nobody in their right mind, that's who. Both tradition and the Bible can be wrong, and that's why those who want to be intolerant to the point of forcing others to comply with their beliefs should be able to make a very good case--with real evidence--that the practice they're against is harmful to others. If people want to speak intolerantly, I think that's their prerogative (just as its the prerogative of others to denounce them for it). But if they want to practice active intolerance--forcing their views on others--then the burden of proof should be on them. Tradition and scripture won't cut it. As a judge in Virginia recently put it, "tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia's ban on interracial marriage." Of course, this "evidence principle" doesn't just apply to gay marriage. It applies any time someone is so sure of their beliefs that they're willing to impose them on others, or even--as in the case of ISIS and the Inquisition--kill those who follow their own conscience.

One of the best arguments for tolerance of other cultures and views is that it's so easy to be wrong. The world is full of different lifestyles, ethical beliefs, and traditions--should we really be so convinced ours are the right ones? What if the other guys are right? Some of the world's traditions are mutually exclusive, which means they can't all be true. That means some ancient traditions and scriptures are dead wrong. As far as I'm concerned, that's the main reason we should err on the side of freedom and tolerance, and put a heavy burden of proof on those who want to be intolerant. There are some things that can be shown not to be tolerable, and I think one of those things is unfounded intolerance.