It has been suggested to me that my writings express a certain lack of tolerance. This is, of course, entirely true. Why rail against something, unless you find it intolerable?
Despite agreeing with such critics, I suspect we nonetheless have a different idea of what "tolerance" means, or how it comes about. Because a motive for writing this site is precisely that I wish to defend - or at least remind myself if nobody else - of the pre-conditions for tolerance itself. I say "pre-conditions", because I do not believe tolerance can exist autonomously as a thing in-itself. It is not something that can simply be deployed, like a language, in order to achieve its desired outcome. Instead, it is an outcome. A fragile eventuality, that emerges from cultures or societies that are fortunate enough to have certain foundational criteria. If you erode those criteria, no amount of "tolerance" will get you back towards a society that actually experiences itself as tolerant.
Yet the concept of tolerance advocated by liberals is similar to that of "freedom" plugged by neo-conservatives. Something you hand out like T-shirt or impose by political will. An ideology that depends on its subjects to be generically free - or unconditionally tolerant - not only misses its mark; it also takes a probable risk that elements within it will exploit its openness and hijack its democratic destiny. These "elements" being those that have contempt for... freedom and tolerance.
Another version of this relativist mistake is the belief that a democracy morally legitimises every possible electoral outcome. It doesn't. It is sometimes necessary be "undemocratic" in order to preserver democracy. If people give democratic support to a force that intends to erode or cancel democracy, things are surely heading off the rails. Democracy is a good thing only for as long as the conditions for it are right. It's fragile; it makes sense only in a narrow range of societal states, predicated on the idea that everyone involved has made a fundamental commitment to it. That's far from being a given.
And so for tolerance. Why tolerate ideas that somewhere define themselves by their intolerance for you? This is the problem of religions unleashed within a democracy. A religion is what it is by virtue of having insiders, and thus outsiders. Fair enough. But a politically ambitious religion necessarily divides that which must remain indivisible: the citizen body. Let alone the fragmentary effect of multiple religions. (A propos of nothing, isn't the very existence of multiple monotheisms a logical reason for despair?)
The movements in Europe and America since the Enlightenment towards secularism were not - as a prevailing mood has now duped itself into believing - about tolerating all expressions of faith. They were precisely about attenuating the political power of faith, which was the high custodian of intolerance. (What on earth is excommunication, if not the most radical of institutional intolerances?)
But I am pessimistic about secularism, given humans' hard-wired need for faith. So, in this extremis, I believe that being actively critical (i.e. intolerant) of theocratic claims - and of the apology for them that is reflexively made by right-thinking folk - is entirely consistent with a desire to protect those frail conditions that render a society as tolerant as it is possible to be. Free speech, equality before the law, the prevailing of reason, and truth as ultimate defence.
You can't have your cake and eat it. A society that wants to retain the pleasures of tolerance must also be prepared for a little intransigence.
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