We have come to interpret the very opposite of what Mill meant, that tolerance means that we should be respectful of all opinions. When we say our society has got to be tolerant, it becomes a relative thing – almost therapeutic mush that we are not allowed to offend anybody. This kind of tolerance leads to a situation where we refuse to challenge or test out arguments in the public sphere.
That is what is so ironic about the contemporary understanding of tolerance. It effectively says you must bite your lip and tolerate all views. This was not at all what Mill meant. Furedi takes on how tolerance has become degraded. He says tolerance has to be robust, interventionist and judgmental. You should tolerate all views, but that does not mean silently sitting by and agreeing with them.
I remember once reading a perspective criticizing tolerance from the left, because it wasn’t accepting enough. To that author, “tolerating” something still implied some sort of respectful disagreement or – gasp! – disdain for it. Only all-encompassing love and complete acceptance will do, comrade! You will be assimilated! (I don’t recall what the plan was for dealing with dissenters.)
But anyway. I was in a local bookstore the other day, and noticed this book on display by the register. “Hey!” I said. “I know that woman!” Her two sons were school friends of mine; I’d been out to their farm many times. Very nice woman, very nice family. I have not a cross word to say about any of them.
The book, now… uh, it’s a book about her, um, spiritual relationship with a cow. As I flipped through the first several pages, I realized that she was not using her cow as a literary device, a symbol of some sort of homespun, earthy wisdom. She’s not being figurative or taking poetic license here. She really claims that her cow communicated with her through some sort of telepathy, that she “heard” the cow’s thoughts in her own head as clearly as if she had spoken them. It’s sorta like Conversations with God, but as if God had teats and stood around looking dopey while chewing his cud.
Now, as I said, this is a perfectly sweet woman, and I always appreciated her kindness to animals, which she taught well to her kids. But there’s just no comfortable way to get around the fact that thoughts do not take the form of complete, linear sentences, scrolling across a screen in the brain like a news ticker, and they do not magically transfer through the ether in that state from one brain to another. Leaving aside, of course, that from what we know, cows do not have anything like the kind of cerebral activity that we do.
And so when this sort of thing comes up in personal conversation, it just hangs there like a rank odor that you realize, with a growing horror, is emitting from your acquaintance, and you shift uncomfortably, inching toward the exit, all the while hoping for a brief moment of self-awareness to dawn and allow them to excuse themselves gracefully.
I have this experience more times than I care to count. And it may surprise you to know that I invariably err on the side of politeness. Actually, one of the main reasons I enjoy writing pseudonymously on the Internet is because most of the people I know are, quite frankly, slightly nuts like that, and it would pain me to have to be the one to take a rational hammer to their metaphysical china. This is where I can speak the truth as I see it, letting the abstract ideas speak for themselves, independent of the personality behind them. Maybe not the people I know, but perhaps some stranger with similar beliefs will read what I write and be jarred into a different perspective. So I bite my lip in personal life, despite agreeing with Fox that mushy tolerance is not a value worth championing. Thus does sentimentality make hypocrites of us all.