On “Tolerance” and Preserving Democratic Possibility

            I had an interesting and thought-provoking conversation with a colleague recently in which I argued that people who deny the existence of climate change or are unwilling to acknowledge this nation’s infrastructure crisis are misguided, as are individuals who are willing simply to vilify poor or otherwise marginalized citizens as the lone architects of and solely responsible for their own dilemmas. I suggested further that these individuals’ stands ultimately are strongly undermining effective democratic governance and the social bonds that undergird it. My colleague seemed concerned that one could not make a negative judgment about the implications for policymaking or governance of a particular claimant’s stance and still acknowledge their agency and listen tolerantly to their perspective.

            I disagreed, as it seemed to me that not only was this assumption false, it profoundly misleads as it implied that any point of view must be accorded reasoned standing in the name of tolerance, no matter how manifestly false, or perhaps ethically or morally repugnant it may be. More deeply, on reflection I have been struck that this exchange points up a difficult problem for democracy and for those seeking to be good democrats who wish to honor the agency of those they encounter in a free and diverse society. How does one do that without necessarily accepting that all judgments, no matter how well or poorly informed or advised, should be accorded equal standing? That is, how does one do so without falling into a more or less unthinking and absolute relativism in philosophic terms? Not all points of view are healthy for sustaining democratic governance, and not all perspectives of whatever stripe are well reasoned or defensible in such terms. Again, how does one accord all individuals standing to believe what they wish and to share what they think without necessarily imagining that any view is as good as any other and should be so treated?

            I am convinced that the claim that criticism necessarily implies unfair intolerance of disparate points of view rests on the individualist assertion that all viewpoints must be accorded status simply because they are embraced or voiced by citizens. I think a distinction must be made between the idea that all residents in a society dedicated to the preservation of individual freedom have very broad latitude to voice their views—however ill-informed or judicious, hateful or empathetic—and the argument that all of those perspectives should be accorded equal weight or standing. Moreover, a considered judgment is just that. It suggests that for identifiable reasons (which others may contest), individuals may be wrong, sometimes dramatically, in their views. This reasonableness standard also supposes that one must offer arguments for one’s claims and not simply declarations of certainty (even in the face of contrary evidence) or allusions to the imagined villainy and nefariousness of those whom one opposes.

            This stance demanding open and reasoned argumentation also provides latitude for acknowledging that human beings can and frequently do discriminate against others without reflection and with impunity and without grounds, too often absolutize their views despite the fact that the assertions they are making exist in explicit tension with other equally significant values, and so on. These positions historically have resulted in the loss of freedom for one or more groups in too many societies to recount here. And, notably, all of these actions were inimical to the principle of individual freedom on which their purveyors often implicitly relied for their articulation. Such claims ultimately must be criticized if liberty is to be maintained for all in a society. All of this suggests to me that there is space for serious examination of all points of view and that one may come to reasoned conclusions concerning their implications. To take this position is, I realize, also to say that one will try to be as fair, reflexive and transparent about one’s criteria for judgment as is feasible. Nonetheless, it rejects explicitly that all points of view are equally acceptable, irrespective of their provenance or implications. Each of these concerns is worth brief additional consideration.

            On the question of supposed intolerance because one is critical of a viewpoint, I find myself reflecting on the current situation in Myanmar where, paradoxically, greater personal freedom in recent years has unleashed a mobilization of hate-spewing Buddhist religious bigots who are jeopardizing that society’s relative new-found liberty by viciously attacking and “othering” Muslims in that nation on no other ground than their existence and difference. This “popular” social movement now threatens the stability of any real freedom in that state. It is inimical to the human rights of those maligned and to any genuine prospect of democratization as a result. Any friend of freedom should not, indeed cannot, stand by and “tolerate” this situation on grounds of seeking to “understand” those making the claim. Freedom now stands at a crossroads in Myanmar, and if liberty is to have any real chance, this malicious campaign must be identified for the tyranny it is and criticized roundly and publicly as such.

            Similarly, to provide a policy example in this country, rather than a human/civil rights one, there are now no factual grounds to argue against the scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and demands immediate action, given its enormous implications for our own nation and all others. One may reasonably debate what steps to take and what strategy or strategies will prove most efficacious given the dangers and costs, but not whether something must be done. That is, it is not intolerant, given the preponderance of evidence, to call for needed action despite the vocal claims of some, on whatever grounds, that the phenomenon “really” does not exist. That stance is simply not factually tenable and is freighted with tremendous social costs. It should be critiqued and not “tolerated” on whatever grounds. It is likewise not intolerant to label Holocaust deniers delusional since there is absolutely no evidence to support their horrific (and typically Anti-Semitic) claims. Shoah and climate change deniers are of course free to adopt their points of view in this nation, but that is not to say that those who rightly criticize their claims on factual grounds are intolerant for doing so. They are not.

            These examples illustrate the point that one need not be blinkered to argue that a perspective is inimical to effective democratic governance or freedom (or both in some cases) or to justice or equality and so on, and to criticize it as such. I have deliberately picked examples that sharpen the contention, but the more important philosophical assertion here is that all views are not the same and individuals who deny others their civil or human rights, or who undermine the capacity of the people to rule themselves in ways that ensure freedom for all, should be subject to more intense scrutiny in democratic societies for those very reasons. Thus, to offer one more illustration, the imposition of onerous voter identification requirements, justified by their supporters as an effort to address factually non-existent vote fraud, should be sharply criticized for the cynical attempt the restrictions represent to prevent some groups from voting. Objecting to such action is neither partisan nor intolerant, but an attempt to preserve the civil rights of all voters in the name of their democratic freedoms against an effort to deny them their franchise to tilt electoral outcomes in a desired direction. In short, I see no reason to suppose that the critic in this example is “intolerant.” Indeed, the purveyors of this injustice should instead be so regarded. Their misguided and misleading claims should and must be countered in the public dialogue.

            Democracy will ever be a fragile form of governance, relying as it does on the higher natures of human beings for its preservation. We must not imagine that it cannot withstand robust conversation or that all of the claims made in freedom’s name are factual or appropriate, or to be “tolerated.” Instead arguments and assertions should be challenged vigorously when they threaten liberty or the individual human dignity that must underpin it.