Book Review: The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson Reviewed by Nathan Pitchford
The word “tolerance” (together with its converse, “intolerance”) is one of the day's buzzwords, and constitutes something of a short-circuit to some of the most deeply held and passionately defended beliefs in just about every camp of political, sociological, or philosophical conviction vying for supremacy in courtrooms, universities, shopping malls, and television screens across the nation. It is presumptive, therefore, that a frank discussion of the hullaballoo surrounding the term, by an incisive thinker and lucid communicator, would be a helpful contribution for a wide array of readers. In this case, the presumption is warranted. I found D. A. Carson's latest effort, The Intolerance of Tolerance, both a stimulating and a practically useful book on a number of levels, and would not hesitate to recommend it to a diverse audience.
Carson's central thesis seems to be that the old tolerance, championed by a Modern (as opposed to Postmodern) society, assumed that there is a truth to be discovered, that right and wrong both exist and are worth searching for, but that it is a grievous crime against humanity to silence those who err or disagree by force or coercion. However, in one of the greatest “bait-and-switch” operations of modern history, a new tolerance has usurped its place, which wields the very hegemony that the old tolerance decried. I'm being simplistic, of course, in trying to distill and baldly assert what Carson was able to say with much more nuancing and documentation over the course of the book; but the case he lays out is compelling in its reasoning and striking in the categorical, black-and-white picture he paints of an overtly intolerant tolerance, that threatens not just to supersede, but entirely to subvert the tolerance of the past.
Ironically, the intolerance intrinsic to the new tolerance is totalitarian; it cannot stand any sincerely-held belief, no matter what its content. Drawing from Robert Bellah's book, The Good Society, Carson quotes a disillusioned Harvard graduate as saying, “They tell us it’s heresy to suggest the superiority of some value, fantasy to believe in moral argument, slavery to submit to a judgment sounder than your own. The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote yourself to any values we please, on the mere condition that we do not believe them to be true.” In other words, in the name of tolerance, the tolerance of any actual belief is utterly eviscerated. That is, any belief except the belief (of relativism and secularism) that drives the new tolerance.
This is the point that Carson continues to make throughout the book. Quoting representative and respectable proponents of the new tolerance, he demonstrates that it really and pervasively does intend to establish secular relativism as the only tolerable regime. He quotes, for example, The United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (1995): “Tolerance . . . involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.” Or else Thomas A. Helmbock, executive vice president of the national Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity: “The definition of the new tolerance is that every individual’s beliefs, values, lifestyle, and perception of truth claims are equal. . . . There is no hierarchy of truth. Your beliefs and my beliefs are equal, and all truth is relative.” But not only does this open the door as widely to fascists or pedophiles as it does to philanthropists and champions of democracy; in actuality, it subtly closes the door to all of those whom it professes to be tolerating. When it rejects “dogmatism” and “truth claims” it is rejecting all those who believe that there is a truth and that they have it – that is, everyone but they themselves who believe in secular relativism.
Interestingly, Carson would suggest that while the ruse has largely deceived us who devised it, it has not been so effective with those for whom it was intended – that is, the “others” in our pluralistic global community, who are different from us ethnically, philosophically, and otherwise. When we are arrogant enough to make the claim that all cultures and truth-claims are equal, not only are we insulting Muslims, for instance, by saying that Buddhism is just as true as Islam, or feminists by saying that strongly patriarchal societies are just as valid as the one they envisage; but we are actually saying that our opinion that all truth claims are equal, which contradicts their opinion that their truth claim is superior, is not only true, but it is incontestable and intolerable to claim otherwise. Carson would suggest that this arrogant condescension is clearly perceived and found to be offensive by much of the world.
But not only has the new tolerance been found insulting to outside cultures; it is causing similar frustration within our own nation, which has resulted in an escalating polarity and discontent among us on a variety of levels. The frustration does not come from the advocates of the new tolerance having the opinions they do: it is their totalitarian refusal to give any other hearing an audience. To quote Carson: “The point is that, while claiming the moral high ground, the secularists are unambiguously attempting to push their own agendas. They have every right to do so, of course, but they do not have the right to assume that their stance is “neutral” and therefore intrinsically superior.” And elsewhere: “while the secularist wants all other religions to retreat into the private sphere, he or she insists that secularists have the right to control the public sphere because they are right — completely unaware that they are trying to impose their worldview on others who disagree with it. Others, they say, are intolerant because they say those with whom they disagree are wrong. But of course the secularists are no less insistent that those who disagree with them are wrong, yet never entertain a guilty wisp of thought suggesting that perhaps they themselves are intolerant.”
More alarming yet is the well-documented point that the oppression is not merely intellectual, but is increasingly beginning to be felt on campuses and in courts throughout the land. We are getting to the point where “You cannot say that something is wrong just because it offends anyone who can whisper in the ear of power. And in subtle ways, in the name of tolerance, state-sponsored coercion — the very criterion of what (the old) intolerance consists in — is brought to bear.”
I have so far concentrated on Carson's logical case against the new tolerance – that it is inconsistent, incoherent, and, ironically, intolerant. In much of the book, that is what Carson competently sets his sights on (and he does a much better job of it than my summary would lead one to conclude). But the book is more than just an exercise in critique or logic. Several subjects were broached in a stimulating but preliminary sort of way. His chapter on the historical conversation regarding tolerance took a step away from the trees to scan the wider forest, for a moment, and had a freeingly humbling effect. I realized that my own limited perspective in history is not adequate to address the complicated issues that the new tolerance touches upon; and it struck me that the same sort of historical myopia that I discovered in myself must really be necessary, to a large degree, for the ironic triumph of the new kind of intolerance. At the least, a step back for a historical survey would help impede the kind of naivety in which a kind of tyranny can grow virtually unrecognized. In a similar vein, Carson's musings on democracy as a political ideal, while brief and largely tangential to his thesis, were scintillating and left me craving a fuller-orbed exploration (perhaps in a future book?).
Much more could be said; but maybe it would be more to the point just to read Carson for himself. You don't have to be an academic to follow him, and while his writing is closely reasoned and sure to provide stimulation both for proponents and adversaries of the new tolerance, it also includes some practical suggestions and insights directed toward conservative Christians who don't usually engage in ideological discussions.
The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson,
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