Skip to Content

Guest Notes

Intolerant notes

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

Forcing people to fake respect for your choices is dangerous

Pretty much everyone these days sees himself or herself as tolerant. But what is meant by ‘tolerance’. Think back to the Israel Folau saga. The man provoked hysterical outrage among the twitterati by posting on Facebook a list of sinners destined for Hell that included homosexuals. Folau did not suggest any need for legal restrictions on gays, to the contrary he insisted he had no animosity towards any LGBT individuals. Rather, he wanted to spread the Bible’s message. (As a born and bred atheist I would point out that if you pick up the King James Version of the Bible, a magnificent read in places, with language second only to Shakespeare’s, you can find passages, such as 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 which seem to put St Paul clearly on the side of Folau.)

The reaction was vociferous and ferocious. All the usual suspects on the virtue-signalling Left went straight into outrage mode. Heads of big companies used advertising funds that flow from shareholders (not from their own pockets), and the implicit threat of their removal, to make clear they wanted Folau out. Australian Rugby Union behaved as though it thought Folau had committed the worst sin going, or at least one deserving a worse sanction than your run-of-the-mill defecator in public or lover of a good brawl.

Yet all sides seemed to think they were the tolerant ones. How can that be? The answer has to do with a shifting understanding of what it means to be tolerant. The traditional sense of ‘tolerance’ grew out of the tens of millions of deaths that flowed from the religious wars in Europe, most notably the Thirty Years War and the French Wars of Religion. The sheer size of the slaughter, and the unforgiving nature in which many campaigns of killing were conducted (with Catholics killing a good few more Protestants than vice versa this descendant of Scots-Canadian Presbyterians would note), pushed people eventually to realise that the cost of pursuing one’s own understanding of eternal truth was too high. So, you got the tolerance of the great philosopher John Locke, and through him of the US Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson. This was the practice of putting up with actions and beliefs even though you thought them wrong. It was the child of the realisation that all sides needed to accept religious pluralism. But be clear, this in no way amounted to being non-judgmental or indifferent to the truth of who was right. The virtue of tolerance was that you thought you were right and lived the better life but you tolerated those who differed and you did not attempt to limit them in their pursuit of their vision. In this classical understanding of tolerance, the dominant one until half a century ago, no-one gets to play the victim or be offended. You expect that those who differ will leave you be and impose on you no legal restrictions. You don’t get to demand that they respect your choices as being as good as their choices.


For many people, tolerance no longer has that sense. With the post-second world war rise of rights-related thinking, many people use the term ‘tolerance’ as a proxy for egalitarian neutrality and demand that nearly all life choices be treated as equally worthy. Think of it as an ‘equal respect’ demand. The failure is not just the failure to let me be. The failure — the sin — is to convey the notion that my choices are less worthy than yours.

Locke would not have understood this as tolerance at all. While Locke demanded tolerance — in part because demanding religious coercion in anything other than an outward sense was futile, since God accepted only voluntary faith — he was absolutely clear that some religions were superior to others. You get the idea. In the traditional sense you can’t be tolerant of something unless you disapprove of or disagree with it. In the modern sense you aren’t tolerant if you suggest another person’s beliefs or actions are less worthy than your own. It matters not that you are prepared to live and let live. Your lack of homage to the choices made by others makes you a bigot.

For Folau and all those of a religious mindset – and I mean those who take their religion seriously as opposed to it being a proxy for lame left-wing politics – they were the tolerant ones, in the Lockean/Jeffersonian sense of the word. Theirs is the live and let live attitude.

By contrast the Australian Rugby Union/Qantas/outraged Twitter mob has been anything but tolerant in this traditional sense. For them, Folau has sinned against egalitarian neutrality and equal respect and no punishment is too severe for such sinners. Taking away the man’s livelihood is barely enough. The demand is to genuflect, in all public acts, at the feet of ‘everyone else is worthy of my respect’. Indeed, they will not tolerate anything less. They can’t laugh at the stupidity or errors of the speaker, he must be shamed and punished. You can’t just think, ‘Heaven’s going to be pretty boring with no drunks, fornicators and so forth.’ Nope. No humour. No robustness. Just puritanical zeal.

Readers will have guessed that I am on the side of traditional tolerance. I don’t believe the contemporary ‘bow down and at least fake your respect for my choices’ tolerance is even coherent – since that demand forecloses any ‘live and let live’ attitude. Worse, it is a terrible basis on which to build political society. It is prone to collapse into authoritarianism, hypocrisy and eventually one helluva a backlash.


Show comments
Close