TOLERANCE: A VIRTUE OR A MORAL DEFECT?

by michael on December 4, 2010

Yesterday morning I gave a presentation to group of Colorado State government lawyers. I was one of three speakers at a conference co-sponsored by the Office of the Colorado Attorney General and the Colorado Bar Association. My topic was “The Ethics of Rhetoric.” My message was that analyzing the ethical content of rhetoric—of words and arguments—was a discrete and valuable advocacy skill.

One of my favorite examples to illustrate the ethics of rhetoric, that is, the ethical content of words, is evaluating or deconstructing the word ‘tolerance.’ As an advocacy skill, the use of the word can be quite abusive and unethical. An advocate’s opponent that uses the word in a sloppy or immoral way should be held accountable for that behavior. The advocate that might choose to use the word ‘tolerance’ might be well advised to make a careful assessment of the implications of the word and then may prudently choose not to use it.

My themes are transferable, of course, and extend well beyond applicability to advocacy in the legal profession. Here’s what I mean. In every school you enter, huge posters extolling the virtue of tolerance line the walls like barnacles on a ship’s hull.

The arguments extolling tolerance are many: It is important to show tolerance. It is important to believe in tolerance. Tolerance shows respect. On and on. The advocacy of tolerance has become so pervasive and deeply ingrained that no one questions its meaning or usefulness. Yet, in all this promotion, no reasons are given to justify the value of tolerance.

So, as I say in my classes and in my lectures and have written in my book, let’s think it through. Tolerance means putting up with. Accepting something that is an annoyance. You tolerate the squeaking sound made by your car brakes because you don’t have time to take the car into the repair shop. So, when you tolerate something, you are not doing much. You certainly are not doing anything based on ethical reasoning. You are not taking a moral stand.

But tolerance has more pernicious implications. Tolerance means inaction; tolerance means not making judgments, tolerance means moral and intellectual and physical passivity. At some point, tolerance becomes indifference and then indifference becomes aiding and abetting. Evil thrives on tolerance; indeed, those that advance evil count on tolerance.

That which is intolerable should not be tolerated. Some things should be rejected and not tolerated. Andre Gide wrote, “A mind incapable of revolt and indignation is a mind without value.” There is a moral duty to be intolerant of things that should not be tolerated.

Elie Weisel, a survivor of Auschwitz, pointedly observed that “Tolerance always favors the aggressor, never the victim.” Indeed, the train tracks to Auschwitz were built on a roadbed of tolerance. The citizens—the world—tolerated brutality when they had a chance to stop it. Then it became too late.

I have been told by those in a position to know, that the massacre at Columbine High School, April 20, 1999 was the consequence, in large measure, of tolerance. (hard to grasp that more than 11 years have elapsed since the day that traumatized Denver). The argument was, and I found it persuasive, that cruel, bullying behavior coupled with ominous words were tolerated by the school administration and, to some degree, by the local police. Indicators of danger and violence were ignored; foreboding behavior was tolerated. I do not suggest a certainty of an alternative outcome, obviously, if some degree of intervention was made but merely a probability that the killings would not have occurred.

Thomas Jefferson wrote “Let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” The appeal to reason is a fundamental theme of my book. Teach children to look beneath the surface of words; to get beneath that metaphoric iceberg, and then evaluate words for themselves, with fresh eyes and minds. Some things should not be tolerated and in some instanced, tolerance is morally obscene. These insights are not put on the posters and, based on my extensive experience in schools, are not being taught in schools.

It is not in our children’s best interests and it is not in our society’s best interests to have weak minded dependent insecure children incapable of confident morally –based thought. Another statement by Jefferson is also illuminating and relevant. “Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.”

The failure to teach children the ethics of our words, the ethics of our rhetoric, will cripple them. They will thus be more inclined to fall for moronic bromides placed on walls and bumper stickers than to become independent free spirited thinkers capable of figuring out issues and challenges on their own. We should teach our children that tolerance, as with any other concept, needs to be evaluated in a moral context. We should have our children grasp that tolerance does not deserve to be a guiding principle. Our children should understand that sometimes tolerance is evil.

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