January 24, 2010
When Tolerance Trumps PrincipleBy David C.Parks
We were invited to dinner with friends and extended family. Wonderful company. Good food. Stimulating intellects. All was well...until the conversation brushed up against two "untouchables" in a Southern home: religion and politics. As the exchange heated and civility gave way to raw emotion, a timid family Democrat pleaded for tolerance, entreated both sides to lay down their verbal firearms, and then abandoned the dinner table in search of safe harbor and warm, fuzzy house cats.
Relishing the beef tenderloin, I pondered the assets and liabilities of a tolerant society. Someone can think, say, or do anything, and others cannot question his thoughts, statements, or actions; but then, he cannot question anyone else's, either. The upside ends there.
By definition, tolerance renders us impotent. Requiring passivity, it negates action. An ordered, lawful, moral, and virtuous life -- as an individual, city, state, or nation -- necessitates constant and intentional effort, often offending lesser angels of our personal or societal nature. In a letter to Mercy Warren in April 1776, John Adams wrote: "Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private [virtue], and public virtue is the only foundation of republics." Study of our human nature confirms that left unbridled, it does not tend toward order or virtue. Human nature gravitates to chaos. Rather than right a troubled world, tolerance allows it to turn upside-down. At some point, we must choose, and fight boldly for, the principles that govern us.
Tolerance requires that we ignore "the law of non-contradiction." The online Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) explains that "opposite assertions cannot be true at the same time" and suggests that Aristotle believed that "the principle of non-contradiction [is] a principle of scientific inquiry, reasoning, and communication that we cannot do without." In a world of social and political tolerance, we do not inquire, we do not reason, we do not communicate...we do not respect...we tolerate.
Until both parties put aside agendas and assent to truth, legislative and political process based on tolerance of each other's beliefs is futile and laughable...or at least it would be, were the consequences not so serious.
The result is a wasteland of abandoned principles.
Tolerance is the pry bar by which the modern liberal moves boundaries.
Robert H. Bork, in his introduction of Slouching Towards Gomorrah (1997), cites the Durkheim Constant: "Emile Durkheim, a founder of sociology, posited that there is a limit to the amount of deviant behavior any community can 'afford to recognize.'" As behavior worsens, the community adjusts standards so that conduct once thought reprehensible is gradually thought to be normal. However, Mr. Bork conjectures that the limits to deviant behavior have expanded in both directions, so that what was deviant is now considered normal, and what was moral is thought puritanical or extremist and therefore irrelevant. Modern liberalism makes every effort to redefine or blur (whichever is more expedient) both boundaries of the acceptable norm and label opponents as "intolerant."
The controversy over the definition of marriage serves as an example of expansion of both boundaries. On the one hand, homosexuality was viewed as deviant behavior in the first two thirds of the 20th century. By the end, national politics encouraged the acceptance of gay lifestyles. On the other hand, a normal marriage has always brought to mind one man and one woman. Now progressives claim that the definition is too narrow and should include gay unions. To think otherwise in their view discloses intolerance and a homophobic prejudice.
In the name of polite statesmanship, conservatives have allowed the infringements and withdrawn traditional discernment and thereby relinquished boundaries on both sides of that vague line of normalcy. Mr. Bork summarizes: "So unrelenting is the assault on our sensibilities that many of us grow numb, finding resignation to be the rational, adaptive response to an environment that is increasingly polluted and apparently beyond our control."
The liberal says that "ignorance leads to intolerance." In fact, tolerance leads to ignorance. Bork recounts the liberal's dilemma, quoting W.H. Auden: "Emancipated from traditional beliefs of a closed society ... he [the liberal] has found no source or principle of direction to replace them ... liberalism is at a loss to know how to handle him, for the only thing liberalism knows to offer is more [liberalism] ... and that is his trouble." With no mental exercise of discernment, rationale, or principle required, tolerance dulls the intellect and implies that we should deny our natural sensibilities while we renounce our discernments. Tolerance presumes that we ignore our capacity to determine and act upon right from wrong, truth from falsehood, or good from evil. Tolerance denies intelligence.
When we allow tolerance to trump principles, we become the allegorical crab in the stewpot. The chef slips the crab into a large pot of water at room temperature. Every few minutes he turns up the heat a few degrees, until the crab, roused from his stupor too late, acquiesces to the inevitable boil and winds up supper for those who would benefit from his stupidity.
Respect is the missing virtue. Respect requires us to move beyond transgressions and differences, accept the author of poor belief and action, and in the process, initiate change. Tolerance identifies the person and belief as one and the same. Respect recognizes their differences and embraces the person when his belief or action may be wrong. Tolerance is a very bland substitute for respect, and people despair to see our nation settle for the lesser.
Should our sensibilities stop at every discussion of ideology and consider all equal and worthy of embrace, even when they are not? As our country was established on Judeo-Christian principles, can the system allow for juxtaposed value systems and still be effective? Do we abandon virtues citing moral failures? Can we no longer discern right from wrong?
We scratch our heads and wonder, "How did we get to this point?" Perhaps we would be wise to recognize that borders, boundaries, and limitations, whether literal or figurative, geographical, political, or moral, serve to protect us and ensure a valuable legacy. In the words of the celebrated poet Robert Frost from Mending Wall, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall that wants it down." Perhaps the neighbor better understood the pending consequences of vanishing boundaries with his reply:
"Good fences make good neighbors."