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How to Defend Tolerance

Flemming Rose

In historical terms, tolerance is a relatively recent invention. Until the 16th and 17th centuries,
few people bothered to think about the value of tolerance. In fact,
it was perceived as a virtue to be intolerant of dissenters. When
it came to religious dissenters, it was considered a duty to
persecute them as a threat to the political order and the spiritual
health of society. Believers were obliged to eradicate heretics and
blasphemers; otherwise they, and their communities, risked becoming
targets of God’s wrath.

This understanding started to change in the aftermath of the
wars of religion in Europe. On a pragmatic level, there was an
urgent need for Protestants and Catholics to work out ways to live
together in peace. This resulted in a regime of religious
coexistence with limited tolerance. Religious minorities were
allowed to gather outside of town to hold their worship services,
or they established so-called Schuilkerk, secret houses of
worship in private homes that later paved the way for the
separation of public and protected private spaces.

Doubts about the certainty of our knowledge also led to greater
tolerance of other beliefs and opinions. Europeans travelled to
faraway places and saw that people there were guided by different
approaches to life. This was reinforced by a growing skepticism
about truth. To those epistemic arguments, John Stuart Mill added
that increased toleration and exposure to competing ideas would
help the tolerant-would lead, that is, to better societies and
better individuals. On the Millian view, people would experience
greater individual satisfaction when they could choose their
beliefs for themselves and take responsibility for the choices they

The case for tolerance that grew out of this story once seemed
settled. But no more. Each day brings news of intolerance toward
speakers on university campuses in the Anglo-Saxon world. There are
many reasons for this, but one fundamental challenge is that
tolerance in many ways goes against human nature. We are not born
tolerant; it’s something we have to learn.

Peter Balint, a senior lecturer in international and political
studies at the University of New South Wales in Canberra,
Australia, examines the deeper arguments of critics of tolerance.
His new book defends toleration as an effective and respectable
tool to manage diversity in a liberal democracy.
Respecting Toleration: Traditional Liberalism and Contemporary
focuses on three forces in our world that push
against tolerance: the multicultural challenge, the despotism
challenge, and the neutrality challenge.

The multiculturalists contend that the liberal approach to
diversity based on neutrality and tolerance has failed because it
doesn’t involve positive respect for or recognition of minorities.
Balint posits that if we care about people living their lives as
they see fit and doing the things they want to do within the
framework of the law, then state neutrality is the best possible
means toward that end. The respect-and-recognition approach,
moreover, risks placing in jeopardy vulnerable minorities within
minorities (a non-veiling Muslim woman, for example, in an enclave
of Muslims whose prominent spokesmen interpret the Quran as
requiring that women wear the hijab).

The defenders of despotism-many of whom are sophisticates and
disclaim that that is what they are defending-hold the view that
tolerance is an outdated concept that a diverse society based on
equality needs to move beyond. As the Swiss-born academic Tariq
Ramadan puts it: “Toleration is intellectual charity on the part of
the powerful … and we must get beyond it. When standing on
equal footing, one does not expect to be merely tolerated or
grudgingly accepted.”

Ramadan is referring to a classical definition of tolerance that
involves objection to something, the power to interfere, and
finally, the withholding of that power. Balint refutes this
definition by saying that toleration can involve power and
objection, but it’s not always the case. Liberal states quite often
exercise tolerance without having any objections; and even if they
do object, their practice of restraining themselves from
interference is better than the alternatives. Tolerance on behalf
of the state may involve respect, indifference, and forbearance.
Balint makes a distinction between a general, permissive practice
of tolerance and specific acts of forbearance.

Finally, those offering the neutrality challenge insist that
tolerance has been superseded by, or is incompatible with, liberal
neutrality, which implies that the state does not judge ways of
life in society. These liberal critics of tolerance posit that the
state should strive for neutrality, and if it does, tolerance is
rendered at best irrelevant. Balint replies that tolerance and
neutrality need to be understood as range concepts-that is, they
operate on a continuum, so that these are always matters of degree.
The things the state should be neutral about are going to be
narrower than the things the state should tolerate. Tolerance and
neutrality are therefore perfectly compatible with one another. The
latter does not exclude the former.

To make clear that tolerance isn’t superseded by neutrality,
Balint provides several examples. Take the Islamist party
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which nonviolently campaigns for a caliphate; a
political party in the Netherlands that is against equal rights for
women; a Communist Party that wants to get rid of liberal democracy
and liquidate the right to private property; or a White Aryan
Church that propagates racism and discrimination against nonwhite
people. The state might tolerate these groups, but that doesn’t
mean that the state should be neutral toward them.

Balint rightly says that it is intolerance (not tolerance) that
needs justification in a modern liberal democracy. We demand proper
and weighty reasons for governments or people to negatively
interfere in the lives of others. We have a right to be in control
of our own lives. It is, as Balint stresses, “about a fundamental
freedom to live one’s life as one sees fit.” He thus makes the case
for a freedom-centered approach to toleration, defending liberal
toleration as the best way to accommodate diversity in today’s
liberal democracies. This goes for both the state and its

A laudable effort is made here to defend tolerance as a tool to
promote social change and individual freedom-all in the name of
creating as much space as possible for a diversity of ways of life.
But the author would have served his case better with a more robust
and consistent defense of freedom, especially freedom of speech.
Diversity of culture, ethnicity and religion-which is to say,
diversity of ways of life-is closely connected to diversity of
opinions and speech. Hence a key challenge to free speech comes
from politicians and civil society groups who celebrate diversity
of cultures and ways of life, but turn around and denounce
diversity of speech and opinion.

Balint doesn’t accept the distinction between words and deeds
that throughout history has been crucially important for the
cultivation of freedom and tolerance. He rebuts the thesis that
intolerance should be understood as curtailing agency, because it
makes it difficult to identify as intolerant symbolic acts such as
desecrating a religious text or knocking down a religious symbol.
These kinds of symbolic manifestations do not prevent anybody from
doing what they want but, according to Balint, they are still
expressions of intolerance.

He prefers to define tolerance as “negative interference,” which
includes more than criminalization, bans, violence, threats, and
intimidation. In doing so, he broadens the scope of what may be
perceived as intolerant, and he blurs the line between speech and
action. This, in turn, opens the door to the legitimization of a
wide range of restrictions on speech like Bible- burning, racist
speech, or other utterances that may be deemed psychologically
harmful. In short, he invites limitations on the very freedom that
he says he want to promote.

Desecrating a religious text is of course outrageous, though I
am not sure if it is by definition an act of intolerance. Consider
the following example: Your family has been killed in a terrorist
attack. The perpetrators justify their crime with references to a
holy book. To express your contempt for the crime, you desecrate a
copy of that holy book. You burn it or tear it to pieces. Would
that be an expression of intolerance? Does it prevent believers
from exercising their faith? Does it cause physical harm to

And how would Balint define the Russian feminist punk group
Pussy Riot’s performance inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior
in Moscow in 2012? The Russian Orthodox clergy qualified it as a
sacrilege-that is, an act of intolerance-while the women said their
protest performance was directed at the Orthodox Church leaders’
support for Vladimir Putin during the election campaign. Three
members of Pussy Riot were convicted of “hooliganism motivated by
religious hatred,” but Amnesty International designated the women
as prisoners of conscience.

There is of course a thin line between expressive, intolerant
acts that are unlikely to, or are not intended to, coerce, as
against acts that are both expressive and coercive, like hanging a
noose outside a black student’s dorm.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the author is too quick to
write off the definition of intolerance as curtailing agency-that
is, strictly defining it as preventing others from doing what they
have a legitimate right to do. Such a definition would strengthen
Balint’s own case for freedom with a hands-off approach based on a
culturally thin state.

In general, Balint hesitates to set forth boundaries. He wishes,
he says, to focus on the “application of toleration to contemporary
diversity” not the limits of toleration. Only briefly are the
limits addressed, and to sketch them out he identifies two types.
The first limit on toleration is in line with the harm principle
and refers to speech and actions that impede other people’s
freedom. The second points to considerations of security, welfare,
equality of opportunity, and efficiency.

The harm principle is familiar. Let’s consider the second
boundary in greater detail: the fact that tolerance needs to be
balanced against other considerations. Balint says that justice in
spite of freedom of conscience and association may need protection.
The limit in this case depends on what sort of threat to justice is
posed. Numbers and intensity matter. He provides the following
example: A lonely old neo-Nazi is ignored, but a larger resurgence
of anti-Semitism is tackled head-on. It involves forbearance of a
xenophobic and racist ideology up until it becomes threatening.

This way of reasoning is problematic for a couple of

First, what does tackling head-on mean? Probably criminalization
and some kind of law enforcement. If that’s the case, then we need
to determine where to draw the line. Is it only anti-Semitic acts
that should be criminalized, or should anti-Semitic speech be
criminalized as well? And what kind of speech should a ban cover?
All speech, or just speech that incites violence? How tolerant
should we of the intolerant?

It seems that the aforementioned distinction between words and
deeds would have provided some guidance. A couple of years ago,
Germany’s domestic intelligence published a report revealing that
there were 500 more extreme Right groups in 2015 than there were in
2014, and there was a 42 percent increase in violent acts by
rightwing extremists over that same period. This in spite of the
fact that Germany as a militant democracy has the toughest laws in
Europe against racist and xenophobic speech.

A study by two Norwegian researchers on the link between
extremist rightwing violence and limitations on free speech in
Norway, Denmark, and Sweden suggested, similarly, that an
environment where extremist speech was filtered out may well have
increased the risk of extremist violence. Sweden has a tougher law
when it comes to extremist rightwing speech than the other two
have, yet more rightwing Swedes committed acts of violence than did
their counterparts in Norway or Denmark. This indicates that there
is no clear-cut link between evil words and evil deeds.

Second, the problem with criminalizing hate speech as an
expression of intolerance is that the law isn’t the most effective
way to fight the sentiments driving this kind of speech. Civil
society does that far better than the courts. (At least this is
true in liberal democracies; in fact hate speech legislation in
nondemocratic countries is usually used to target minorities.)

To sum up: Balint makes a persuasive case for tolerance as a
tool to manage diversity, both as a relationship between the state
and its citizens and among citizens themselves. He is right that a
freedom-centered approach creates the most space for individuals to
live their lives as they see fit. But the lack of a comprehensive
discussion of the boundaries of toleration and disregard of the
decisive role played by the distinction between words and deeds in
advancing freedom weaken his case.

Flemming Rose is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.