What is Good?, What is True?

Should We Tolerate Everything?

Over the years, I have heard a lot of people ask this same question in various forms: Should we tolerate everything? And this is certainly an important question.

One of the hallmarks of the U.S.[1], ideally, is that we tolerate diversity of ideas.[2] Because of this, we have a long-standing tradition of tolerating a variety of religions, ideas, beliefs, and lifestyles in our public life.

We understand that not everyone agrees with what everyone else believes or thinks. And we believe, nonetheless, that we should be able to coexist peacefully. A foundational belief of our country is that, ideally, we deal with difference through democratic discussion and debate, rather than through violence or authoritarian legislation.

Tyranny of the Majority

John Stuart Mill writes in On Liberty that freedom and diversity of thought is what helps us advance as a species. He notes that humans tend to get stuck in patterns of group think which he calls the tyranny of the majority.[3]

He writes, “Since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”[4]

It is by the confrontation of beliefs in the public square, Mill argues, that we are forced to wrestle with different ideas and evidence and determine which ideas are accurate or not. This makes us better thinkers and better people.

You can read On Liberty here: On Liberty

Some Examples from History

There are many instances in history that illustrate Mill’s insights. For example, you are certainly aware that for years, there was a debate over whether the sun or the earth was the center of the universe. While many people before Galileo suggested the sun was the center, Galileo was the scientist whose work so strongly advocated this idea that people, in this case the Catholic Church, felt threatened by it.

The Catholic Church held it as a matter of church doctrine that the earth was the center of the universe. Therefore, they denounced Galileo’s work as heretical and pressured Galileo, who was himself a believer, to recant on pain of death.

If not for the brave work of scientists like Galileo, science could not progress. But history also shows that people intolerant of change and new ideas often try desperately to halt such progress.

And I am certainly not picking on religion with this example. We could examine other times when Christians or people from other religions critiqued dominant and oppressive social practices.

For example, many of the early abolitionists in the U.S. were Quakers or Methodists (and other Christian or religious people) who denounced the practice of slavery.

And Christians, like Martin Luther King Jr. were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. People like this bravely denounced the immoral apartheid practices in U.S. society at the time.

And just like people did with Galileo, people in the U.S. intolerant of social change tried desperately to halt progress.

The Importance of Tolerance

The point of these examples is to show that when societies squelch dissent and try to force everyone to agree on all ideas or most ideas, these same societies almost always entrench oppressive and regressive practices. They also crush the very ideas that catalyze scientific and humanitarian forms of progress.

This is one of the reasons tolerance is so important.

The practice of social tolerance ideally creates the conditions in which we can free ourselves from the prejudice and ignorance present in our current culture. A diversity of ideas shows us that there is a different way to live, think, and organize our society.

Of course, not every idea is a good one. When we practice tolerance as a society, inevitably some bad and very stupid ideas float around. We certainly see evidence of this on the internet every day. And we can see this by looking back at history or even the last forty years. After all, many of us also survived jelly shoes and overly-teased, excessively sprayed hair in the eighties.

The practice of tolerance certainly permits bad ideas to enter our culture and politics. But  tolerance can also help us extinguish bad ideas.

Ideas forced underground have a way of festering in dark and unseen places. Those that face the light of day and public scrutiny, on the other hand, must find a way to justify themselves. When they cannot, such ideas often die. Thus, many ideas prevalent only a few centuries ago have almost completely lost traction today. For an example of this, maybe spend some time today reading about phrenology and the four humors.

And granted, bad ideas still hang around in weird corners of the world (or the internet). After all, there are still some people today who believe that the earth is flat. But ideas like this are much less likely to gain traction in a society that encourages public debate. They are more likley to flourish in a society that does not permit debate and in which holders of such ideas are not required to present evidence in defense of their beliefs.

Fair enough.

Most of us can see that tolerance allows us to further our understanding and knowledge and to decrease the traction of bad ideas. But the question is, “Should all ideas be tolerated?” After all people in tolerant societies not only parade around bad or silly ideas. They also promote downright hateful, misogynistic, racist, cruel, and dehumanizing ideas.

Many people who do so also loudly proclaim their right to free speech. They gleefully remind their critics of “tolerance”.

Must we tolerate such ideas?

This question and related ones are especially pertinent right now because Facebook and some other media outlets have recently upheld their decision to ban former President Trump from using their platforms. Such companies argue that President Trump used social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to incite some of his supporters to violently storm our Capitol. This event resulted the death of several people, including a police officer.

Some people decry Facebook’s decision as an example of intolerance, cancel culture, and a violation of free speech.[5]

Because of the scope of this post, I cannot examine in depth the reasoning behind Facebook’s decision or the behavior of President Trump that inspired it. You can read more about this here:

The Capitol Attack: We Have an Opportunity

Rather, I wish briefly to focus on the question of whether we should tolerate all ideas. I think that we should not. And there are three reasons why.

First: The end goal of tolerance is not simply tolerance. The end goal of tolerance is to promote flourishing.

Interestingly, tolerance is not the highest value of tolerance. Human and political flourishing is. I use the term flourishing here to refer to situations that allow human being to develop their full human potential like morality; creativity; and wisdom in caring relationships with one another.

As we have examined above, when societies squelch dissenting or new ideas, they tend to entrench regressive and oppressive social practices. They also stifle scientific and humanitarian, as well as other forms, of progress.

So, the goal of practicing tolerance is not tolerance by itself.

The goal of tolerance is to better enable societies to rid themselves of ignorance and prejudice. Ignorance and prejudice crush the conditions necessary for flourishing. Clear, moral, and just thinking promote such conditions.

If the ultimate goal of tolerance is human flourishing rather than tolerance by itself, this suggests that if certain types of speech crush the conditions necessary for flourishing, we should not tolerate such speech.

To do so would be missing the point of tolerance all together and would be a bad form of tolerance. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse alludes to such kinds of destructive tolerance in his essay Repressive Tolerance. (You can read this essay here: Repressive Tolerance.)

In this post, I will refer to such bad forms of tolerance as uncritical tolerance.

Second: If we practice uncritical tolerance, we eventually excuse intolerance, which undermines the possibility tolerance.

The virtue of tolerance recognizes the dignity of all human beings. It suggests that society exists for the sake of human beings, not the other way around. It also suggests that all human beings possess thinking and moral capacities that can potentially enrich our life together. And, therefore, they deserve a chance to be heard.

If dignity is the underlying value of tolerance, then ideas and words that destroy human dignity (or speak against the dignity of all people) also destroy the possibility for tolerance. Clearly, if we value tolerance, we cannot tolerate ideas that destroy tolerance.

Paradoxically, it seems that uncritical tolerance leads to intolerance; and that critical tolerance[6] requires some forms of intolerance–namely intolerance of ideas that undermine the dignity of all humans.

Third: Tolerance is a type of play. As such, it must preserve form and freedom.

In his book, Homo Ludens, play historian, Johann Huizinga, argues that society arises in play. (See ch. 11). Now that may seem like an idea unrelated to tolerance, but stay with me.

Consider this:

Play occurs through the tension of form and freedom.

For example, when people play games like basketball, they must maintain the tension of form and freedom. Basketball and other games only work within a certain form created by rules. If there is no form, there is no game. For instance, imagine if basketball players suddenly decided that they could run up and down the court without dribbling. Or imagine if basketball players decided suddenly that they could score ten points point by completely missing the basket or falling on the floor.

While it is possible that they might be inventing a new game with such innovations, it is more likely that their free-for-all rules destroy the possibility of playing the game.[7]

At the very least, such innovations would certainly destroy the game of basketball as we know it.

You can read all of Homo Ludens here: Homo Ludens

No Form, No Game; No Freedom, No Game

Nevertheless, just as there is no game without form, there is no game without freedom. Basketball is an exhilarating game precisely because of the freedom players exercise within the form of the game.

Basketball legends like Michael Jordan and memorable teams like the Harlem Globetrotters stand out precisely because of their freedom, creativity, and innovation.

No doubt great artists and athletes (who both engage in play) make a mark for themselves by expanding our concept of art and athletics. However, in their innovation, they must still maintain the tension of form and freedom.

On the one hand, they must maintain some form. Otherwise, their work is unrecognizable as artistic or athletic performance.

On the other hand, they must also exercise freedom in the game or else everything is predetermined. Fatalistic philosophies make interesting coffee house discussions; they generally result in uninspiring athletic events.

And Now We Return to Tolerance

I suggest that tolerance is a virtue that permits the playfulness of society to continue. And tolerance is also is a type of playfulness itself. As such, tolerance requires both form and freedom. For tolerance to exist, we must allow diversity of ideas to allow humans to progress. That’s the freedom.

But this freedom must exist within a form. Namely we cannot tolerate ideas that try to crush diversity of ideas or that crush the conditions necessary for flourishing. When we do this, we spoil the game and cannot play anymore.

The Tricky Part

Obviously, the tricky part is figuring out exactly the types of speech that crush the conditions necessary for fourishing. And the tricky part is also identifying exactly when people violate the form and freedom of tolerance and ruin the game.

There is no easy answer for this, but Huizinga gives us a clue. He argues that societies languish when people behave as though they are playing the game when they actually aim to dominate and win at all costs. In chapters eleven and twelve of Homo Ludens, Huizinga refers to such acts as false play and puerile barbarism. For the sake of simplicity, I will call such people false players.

To be a true player, you must want the game to continue, even if it means that you don’t win.

On the other hand, false players have one goal only: to win. And they are willing to break all the rules, as well as crush the players and game itself to win.

That’s where the puerile barbarism is on display in all its sordid glory. You’ve most certainly met this kind of false player in elementary school. They are the kids who would rather kick the soccer ball into the lake rather than risk losing.

There are false players in the game of tolerance, too.

Such false players do not actually care about the play of tolerance. They don’t actually care about conditions for flourishing. And they don’t care about the dignity of the players. They primarily (or solely) care about winning.

And they are fairly easy to spot. They are the people who are not actually willing to do the hard work of developing critical tolerance. And they are not willing to endure the discomfort that comes with carefully listening to other people who hold different opinions from their own.

False players tend to believe that it’s their way or the highway.

And they are generally unwilling to consider that they could improve upon their understanding of life. They are usually completely unwilling to consider that they may hold ignorant and prejudice views.

Instead, they become entrenched in defending their view of the world, which they generally believe is the only right view. One of their primary goals is to make everyone fall in line with their agenda. A clear sign that someone is a false player is that they only talk about tolerance when it benefits them.

For example, they do not use the language of tolerance to defend other people hurt by regressive social beliefs.

Rather they use the language of tolerance solely or predominantly to defend themselves. In this way, they weaponize the language of tolerance to disrupt both the form and freedom that the play of tolerance requires.

I suggest that these are the kinds of ideas we should not tolerate because, in the end, they make tolerance impossible. And it may not be easy in all cases to identify such ideas or what we should about them. But we should at least care and try.


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[1] And certainly this ideal is present in other democratic countries around the world.

[2] We certainly have not always lived up to this ideal, but the scope of this post does not allow me to address our failures to do this in the past and even present.

[3] John Stuart Mill. On Liberty. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, IN: pg. 2

[4] Ibid, pg. 50

[5] By the way, I think it is right for people to be concerned about the general power which social media companies hold over public discourse. However, I do not have the space to address this larger issue in this post.

[6] I use the term uncritical tolerance to refer to people practicing tolerance in a way that misses the point of tolerance. I use the term critical tolerance to refer to people who practice tolerance in a way that recognizes the point of tolerance.

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