Why Toleration Is Never Enough and Why Moral Conservatives and Free Speech Liberals Will Keep on Losing

Two groups have, of late, found themselves more than a bit on the defensive, and seem befuddled about why. Moral conservatives, those increasingly rare birds who think that not only is there some objective set of moral standards but also, generally, that those standards should be publicly recognized, have been shocked (not as in “shocked, shocked!”) that lots of folks want to follow through on the premises of the sexual revolution and reorder how we think about marriage—and that, as with most social revolutions, if you don’t get on board, you’ll find yourself the object of social, economic, and political ostracism. Free-speech liberals, on the other hand, increasingly find themselves besieged as the places they once thought citadels of free expression—our colleges and universities—sometimes seem to care more about psychological safety and comfort than the rough and tumble of opposing ideas.

What gives? Why can’t we just come to reasonable disagreement about the many matters that, in fact, divide us and figure out how to tolerate those differences? Why can’t same-sex supporters just leave the marriage traditionalists alone? What’s so terrible about having someone on campus who thinks things you find terrible? Whatever happened to principled toleration, both ask?

And herein lies the change that underlies, I think, the dilemmas for both the moral conservative and free-speech liberal: toleration is, in the minds of many, no longer enough, if it ever was.   For the last few decades have witnessed a sea-change in the way a broad swathe of scholars and intellectuals think about the social and political response to moral pluralism. Traditionally—at least for the past few hundred years—the standard response to pluralism has been toleration, by which we generally mean being willing to put up with something we find morally noxious on account of some other, more important, good. Locke, in his Letter on Toleration (1689), argues for toleration among (most) Protestant churches because it helps secure civic concord and best respects the nature and limits of government. (Those aren’t his only arguments, but I’ll return to this below). This eventually gets expanded to include all Christian groups, and then others until you get to what I take to be the apotheosis of liberal toleration, John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” On Mill’s view, society and government (and it matters that he includes both) can only coerce or even severely criticize individuals to prevent “harm” to others. The Supreme Court, which has largely written Mill’s principles into its First Amendment speech jurisprudence, draws the circle of what counts as publicly actionable harm pretty narrowly: incitement to violence, libel, etc. It has been a principle of American public life—certainly not observed consistently in practice—that the proper response to moral disagreement is to allow others their views, though within certain limits and with the caveat that toleration does not imply an abstention from offering serious, even polemical, critiques.

We might ask, though, why Locke found it necessary to include in his Letter the various religious arguments for toleration? He starts the letter off suggesting that the “chief characteristickal mark” of the church is toleration. (A mistake both theologically and sociologically, it seems to me). Everyone I’ve ever read on this makes these sorts of claims at least somewhat instrumental—most everyone reading his writing would be Christian, and you should always appeal to your audience—or as a reflection of his own, fairly latitudinarian Christian views. Perhaps that’s correct, but what I also think is true is that toleration as an abstract claim about letting people be only has real moral and political teeth provided that you have some good positive reason to tolerate. Or, to use the language I offered above, provided that when you tolerate some noxious practice or belief, you are always, inevitably tolerating with an eye toward some other good you interested in securing. When you tolerate your irascible relative at family gatherings, you do so because the good of familial peace is worth tolerating for. Locke’s argument for toleration works, insofar as it does, precisely because the goods it secures are worth putting up with your religiously wrong neighbors.

So what does this have to do with the ostracism of moral conservatives and the retreat of free-speech liberals? In relatively recent debates over toleration, there has developed a view that says toleration is simply not enough. In tolerating others, we implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) communicate that what they do or believe is, in our view, morally disreputable. That can have serious effects, of course, on the tolerated’s sense of self-worth and ability to live her life as she sees fit. Instead of toleration, the argument goes, we should instead offer one another mutual respect or positive regard or, and this is the key move, recognition. We need not morally endorse others’ lives full stop, but we should go beyond a grudging indifference to something like a decently warm encouragement. And the reason, broadly speaking, we must do so is because the goods we thought we could secure via toleration are not enough. They still leave those being tolerated the object of social opprobrium and thus at some real disadvantage—or worse.

Hence, it is not enough for gays and lesbians to achieve a rough degree of legal and political equality. Nor is it enough for tender college students to hear criticisms that go to the heart of their own sense of identity. Unless their moral lives are, in some real way, recognized and affirmed not only by public (or university) authorities and unless their fellow citizens (or students or speakers) can be counted on to do the same, real, substantive equality will remain elusive.

But this makes for the obvious question: if recognition, not toleration, is the rule of the day, why can’t moral conservatives or others with unpopular views make similarly structured claims? Well, in my view, they should be able to and the fact that they can’t helps reveal an incoherence at the heart of the recognition claim. Given a certain range of moral and religious pluralism, it is principally and practically impossible to extend recognition to all or even most, especially once recognition extends into our everyday social lives. Recognition is, or at least can be, a zero-sum game. And so what is lurking behind the purported argument for recognition—and toleration, for that matter—is a set of moral judgments about what lives are in fact worth recognizing or tolerating, and here is where the misunderstandings of moral conservatives and free-speech liberals will continue to lead to loss after loss. It is not enough to merely beg for toleration on the grounds of tradition or conscience or some-such. Nor is it enough to suggest, as Mill did, that it is worth our while to hear scandalous or provocative views. For when our latter day inquisitors deny the requests for recognition or toleration, the reason is that the moral and psychological harms they suppose themselves to be receiving stem from what they view as morally problematic views of the world. It is the sheer existence (or at least their own awareness) of these terrible people and their ideas that seem to function as a standing rebuke to their own moral self-conceptions—and thus those terrible others must be marginalized and even run out of impolite company.

The implication here is obvious, if not altogether comforting: if moral conservatives and free-speech liberals are to find success, even if that just means being let be, they will have to do more than just make ever louder claims in favor of toleration. They will need to do the more laborious, painstaking work of making the case that the lives or practices they hold dear have real positive value to them, to convince our morally skeptical neighbors that a life lived in obedience to some great good (or even God!) is one worth living, that hearing and engaging claims that challenge, even hurt, your sense of yourself is of very great benefit. I confess that I have no great confidence that success can be found in such an enterprise, but I think it really is our only option.

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One response to “Why Toleration Is Never Enough and Why Moral Conservatives and Free Speech Liberals Will Keep on Losing

  1. Pingback: Bryan McGraw describes the differences between toleration and regonition | A Teacher's Writes

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