Tolerance and Affirmation
One of the most important requirements for having a meaningful discussion on any controversial, emotionally-polarizing subject where public opinion is strongly divided is the requirement of defining your terms. One term which is frequently used but rarely defined with any kind of precision or care is the term “tolerance.” It seems that in our culture today the supreme virtue is “tolerance,” while the supreme vice is “intolerance.” In today’s popular discourse, you are a “good” person if you believe in “tolerance” (and especially so if you are also vocally in favor of concepts like “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” and other squishy feel-good terms which are, like “tolerance,” often used but rarely defined with any kind of clarity). In today’s American culture, being known for your “tolerance” is the key that opens up the door to being in the “cool,” “hip,” and “with it” crowd of the cultural elites. You may be a habitual liar, an unrepentant fornicator, a venemous gossip, a drunkard, unethical in your business practices, sleazy in your politics, or a just-plain-nasty, foul-mouthed person; but as long as you are “tolerant” (whatever that happens to mean), then you will be regarded by the cultural “in” crowd as good, smart, and ethically-superior to those labelled as “intolerant.” On the other hand, you may be honest, hard-working, faithful to your spouse, responsible in your parenting, ethical in your business practices, kind to your fellow man, charitable, law-abiding, well-educated, patriotic and pious; but as long as you are viewed as being “intolerant” by the cultural in-crowd, then, according to the standard of the current cultural elite, you are to be regarded as a bad person, on the same ethical level as a Nazi concentration camp soldier, and also as a dumb, uneducated dimwit with the brains of a Neanderthal.
Part of the problem is that the usage and application of the word “tolerance” has rapidly changed in recent decades and years. In his excellent book, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, copyright 2012 D.A. Carson), Dr. D.A. Carson demonstrates the difference between the “old tolerance” and the “new tolerance.” It used to be that “tolerance” meant a willingness to put up with or endure the public expression and promotion of views and opinions that one personally disagreed with. Under the “old tolerance,” even views and opinions and persons that one regarded as not merely wrong, but even personally offensive, were to be accorded the legal right to express and even promote their views without legal sanctions. Under the older understanding of tolerance, you could “tolerate” people who hold to different views, opinions, and practices, while at the same time strongly disagreeing with those views, opinions or practices. (For example, under the older tolerance we legally “tolerate” the rights of marginal groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party to exist and even to express and promote their views, even though we would find their views vile and deeply offensive.) In other words, under the older tolerance, “tolerance” is different from “affirmation.”
On the other hand, when it comes to the “new tolerance,” one is not viewed as being truly “tolerant” unless one is willing not only to endure, or put up with, different views, opinions, practices and persons. Instead, in order to be regarded as truly “tolerant” under the new tolerance, one must also affirm as equally valid and equally legitimate different views, opinions, practices and people. In other words, the “new tolerance” confuses “tolerance” and “affirmation.” So, for example, under the new tolerance it is not enough simply to agree to put up with and allow for homosexual couples to practice their homosexual lifestyle free from legal sanctions or community harrassment. No, under the new tolerance one must be willing to fully, unequivocally and without exception “affirm” the legitimacy of homosexuality as a valid alternative lifestyle, and to support pro-homosexual policies like “gay marriage” as being completely equal in its validity to traditional (opposite sex) marriage, in order for one to be regarded as truly “tolerant” with respect to the homosexual issue. In other words, when it comes to issues like homosexuality and gay marriage, “tolerance” means full, unequivocal, enthusiastic “affirmation” by the standards of the new tolerance. If you are not willing to go along with this, without deviation or dissent, then you are to be derided, marginalized, and demonized as an “intolerant” (and worse, a “homophobic”) person.
To quote from Dr. Carson’s book: “Intolerance is no longer a refusal to allow contrary opinions to say their piece in public, but must be understood to be any questioning or contradicting the view that all opinions are equal in value, that all worldviews have equal worth, that all stances are equally valid. To question such postmodern axioms is by definition intolerant. For such questioning there is no tolerance whatsoever, for it is classed as intolerance and must therefore be condemned. It has become the supreme vice.” (p. 12)
What are we to make of this “new tolerance” and its confusion of “tolerance” and “affirmation”? Here are just a few of my thoughts on this confusion:
(1) The “new tolerance” is both logically self-defeating and hypocritical.
The “new tolerance” is based upon the relativistic belief that all opinions are equally valid. According to the new tolerance, “absolutist” views (for example, the historic Christian belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, and the view that God has defined marriage as being between a man and a woman) are judged to be “intolerant.” And yet if advocates of the new tolerance really believe that we should tolerate and affirm all views as equally valid, then would that not be true of “absolutist” views as well? Isn’t the new tolerance’s position that “all opinions are equally valid” itself an “absolutist” position? In other words, the “new tolerance” cannot stand up under logical scrutiny. It is inherently irrational and emotionally-driven. Furthermore, it is also hypocritical, because no one who advocates the new tolerance can consistently live out its implications in their daily lives. I suspect that even the most vocal, idealogical advocates of the new tolerance would not be willing to “tolerate” a convicted, known pedophile hanging around their young children. And rightly so! This is just one of many examples that could be offered which demonstrates that the “new tolerance” is self-defeating, and thus it can only be applied arbitrarily and hypocritically according to the whims and trends of those who hold the reins of cultural power.
(2) The “new tolerance” ignores the fact that “tolerance” is not always a virtue.
“Tolerance” is not always a virtue, and “intolerance” is not always a vice. In fact, in some circumstances it is downright noble to be intolerant, and downright sinful to be tolerant. If a thief breaks into your home and threatens your life and that of your family, it is not a virtue to “tolerate” the thief’s intrusion. If you have to use lethal force in order to protect yourself and your family from the intruder, it is a virtue for you to take down the intruder, even though that is not a very “tolerant” action. Likewise, it is not a virtue to “tolerate” incompetent, untrained or unqualified persons in important positions of public trust and leadership. For example, it would not be virtuous for you to “tolerate” a situation where an incompetent or unqualified surgeon is scheduled to perform a life-saving surgical procedure on a loved one, if you had better options available to you. Similarly, it is not a virtue to “tolerate” clearly incompetent, unqualified or unethical policemen, military personnel, school teachers, ministers, politicians, or other influential community leaders. Whenver the “tolerance police” start to babble, it would be well for us to remind them, politely but clearly and often, that tolerance is not always a virtue.
(3) The “new tolerance” exhibits an authoritarian impulse and lends itself to authoritarian manipulation and abuse.
Numerous contemporary examples could be cited of the “new tolerance” being enforced, not merely by social pressure, but also by legal dictate. In some situations, those who don’t comply have been threatened with legal sanctions and have had their good names and reputations besmirched. For example, the reader might recall the bakery store owner who was subject to activist litigation for declining to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, due to the baker’s deeply held religious beliefs and personal conscience. Now, let’s try to imagine a reverse scenario. Let’s say that a member of the infamous Fred Phelp’s Westboro Baptist Church goes to a local bakery to order a cake with the words “God hates fags!” written on it, for use at a gay-bashing party they are planning to have at their church. Let’s say that a gay couple owns the bakery shop. Should this gay couple have the legal right to refuse to bake such a cake for the church? I would argue that they should have the legal right to refuse to serve such customers, and I suspect most advocates of the “new tolerance” would agree with me on this point. However, if a gay bakery owner should have the right to refuse to provide customer service that would violate his/her conscience or be offensive to his/her beliefs or lifestyle, then why should not a Christian bakery owner have the same right?
All of this is to show that the new tolerance is not only arbitrary; it is also authoritarian in that it uses legal force (which, by its very nature, is inherently intolerant) to compel compliance to what it regards as orthodox and “politically correct” viewpoints. Business owners are threatened with being shut down if they don’t comply with the demands of the new tolerance. In some academic settings, students who voice unpopular opinions may fear or even be threatened with failing grades if they don’t give public assent in the classroom to the new tolerance. Recently we’ve witnessed examples of scheduled commencement speakers being “disinvited” from giving commencement speeches because they were judged to fall short of the new tolerance’s orthodoxy. Bottom line: If you don’t go along with the “new tolerance,” you will not be tolerated. The new tolerance is authoritarian and totalitarian in its demands, which is something that should be concerning to all who value our historic freedoms and liberties.
(4) Truth is a higher value than tolerance.
Christians should remember that God’s truth should hold a higher place in our system of values than the value of tolerance. God is a God of truth, and He requires that we speak the truth in love, even if that speech is wrongly perceived to be “intolerant” by the promoters of the “new tolerance.” Jesus Christ is Himself the living Truth, and if we claim to be His followers then we must be lovers of the truth who are zealous to proclaim and live out the truth of Gods’ Word. God is more concerned with truth than He is with tolerance. Furthermore, let us remember that the God of the Bible (who alone is the one true and living God) is quite intolerant of many things, things such as: injustice, idolatry, immorality, false doctrine, oppression, pride, unbelief, false religion, greed, gluttony, kidnapping, false scales, theft, blasphemy; in a word, sin. If we claim to be loyal to Him, then we will exhibit the virtue of having an attitude of intolerance toward that which our heavenly Father finds intolerable, even as we by our actions display tolerance and neighborliness even toward those who reject God and His truth (i.e., let us “love the sinner, hate the sin”). I would suggest that it is as we are more devoted to God’s truth that we will be more truly tolerant (in the sense of the “old tolerance”) than even the most zealous advocates of the so-called “new tolerance.”