I Don’t Have To Like It

I tend to rail about religion now and then; some of you may have noticed. I’ve even suggested that we’d all, in the long run, simply be better off without it. Such remarks tend to evoke indignant responses, in which I am tartly reminded of the value of “tolerance”. But I must say that I don’t think I’m actually being intolerant at all. In a pair of comments to our previous post, philosopher Peter Lupu offered some thoughtful remarks about tolerance, and I think it would be helpful to take a closer look.

First of all, it’s important to be clear about what “tolerant” means. To tolerate something doesn’t mean to welcome it, or to hope it will be with us always. It only means that one is able, and willing, to put up with whatever it is — even if one would really rather not. (Chemotherapy patients, for example, are said to “tolerate” the treatment poorly or well.) But all too often I get the feeling that, in many people’s minds, one is being “intolerant” regarding some notion or cultural phenomenon if one criticizes it in public, or if, for that matter, one simply fails to greet it with tambourines and dancing. This is not what intolerance is, and those who define it this way it want far too much.

Let us agree that a free and open society, comprising a broad diversity of attitudes and opinions, must ask a goodly measure of tolerance from its citizens. We define certain rights, and to the extent that mine are not infringed by your behavior, my attitude should be that you may go about your business. After all, we have equal standing under the law, and in return for my putting up with you, you are going to put up with me.

But putting up with the cultural, social, artistic, philosophical, religious, etc. manifestations of others doesn’t mean that I can’t have a low opinion of them. If, by my lights, some television program is rubbish, some political viewpoint ignorant hogwash, some popular activity a foolish waste of time, or some common religious notion nothing more than a childish and harebrained superstition, my expressing these opinions is not an act of intolerance, but of criticism. Were I actually to advocate that your rubbish, hogwash, waste of time, or harebrained superstition be outlawed, or to incite violence against you for your enjoyment of them, that would be intolerance. But to shake my head, tut-tut, and say a few disapproving words as I watch you blunder along is mere curmudgeonry at worst, and might even do you, or someone else with more sense who happens to be listening, some good. I shall try to be civil about it.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am certainly not recommending taking a crabbed and closed-minded attitude toward new and different ideas, even if I must defend the right to do so. There is little harm in giving them a fair and sympathetic hearing, and possibly much to be gained. The idea of tolerance extends even to how one furnishes and populates one’s own mind. We must first — and this is the hardest work of all — look as deeply as one can into what we value, and why. We should then welcome those ideas and impressions, however new and unfamiliar, from whose acquaintance we may benefit, and turn away the riffraff.

But sincere and conscious open-mindedness is not at all the same as the mush-brained relativism that tells us we must, above all, “respect one another’s beliefs”. It is one thing for you to ask that I listen open-mindedly as you present your beliefs and opinions, but quite another to insist that I must respect them once I have examined them and understood that they are nonsense. If they do no public harm I will tolerate them, as civic duty requires, but I am under no obligation whatsoever to respect them.

And now we come to the limits of tolerance. When it becomes apparent that your agenda is to promulgate ideas and beliefs that do indeed have a public and harmful effect, the appropriate response is not tolerance but resistance. When, for example, you wish to use the public schools to indoctrinate children with primitive creation myths presented as science, yours is no longer a quaint personal belief to be tolerated, but an assault upon reason, and a threat to the intellectual well-being of the nation. And when you take shelter within our borders with the explicit purpose of supplanting a thriving and forward-looking Enlightenment culture with a repressive and benighted medieval theocracy, you forfeit any claim upon our forbearance and good will.

But for the most part, particularly here in America, we get along quite well. If you want to stuff your head full of buncombe, or act like a bloody fool, well, it’s a free country. Knock yourself out.


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  1. Charles says

    Even though my views on religion differ from yours, I sympathize with you fully as far as tolerance goes. Once, a long time ago, I was talking with another foreigner in a bar in Shinchon. He had just recently arrived in Korea, and I had been here for several years at the time. I don’t remember what exactly we were discussing, but it was some aspect of Korean culture, and I expressed my disapproval. He immediately accused me of being culturally intolerant. To which I replied: “You’ve been here, what, two months? You’re still in your honeymoon phase. I think I have a little more experience in this area than you do, and I’m entitled to my opinion. I tolerate it just fine–I tolerate a lot of things, in fact–but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

    In other words, pretty much what you said here. Although the subject is not usually religion, it’s a very tricky thing when a foreigner criticizes Korea, because he or she is then immediately accused of cultural intolerance. I agree wholeheartedly that a lot of people really don’t have a clue as to what tolerance really is. This is why, I’m sad to say, I generally just keep my mouth shut. Maybe I’m cynical, or maybe I’m just a realist, but it does make my life easier.

    Posted November 25, 2008 at 1:29 am | Permalink
  2. pdg says

    I have little use for religion per se- but I do have reasons to hold faith in a metaphysical dimension where spirit -for lack of a better word does exist

    Posted November 25, 2008 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Well, there are reasons, and then there is faith. Quite different things…

    Posted November 25, 2008 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  4. JK says

    Quite different. I have faith that I can jump the Grand Canyon. But there is a reason I won’t prove it to you.

    Posted November 25, 2008 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  5. Addofio says

    It occurred to me earlier in the recent exchanges we’ve been participating in that it might be worth pointing out the distinction between respect for a belief or opinion, and respect for a person. I think it’s an important distinction; I often haven’t much respect for various opinions I encounter, but, while I reserve the right, as you do, to voice my lack of respect or even outright contempt for the opinion, when considering whether or how to do so, I also try to take into account a basic level of respect that I feel everyone is entitled to as a fellow human being. There are ways and ways of expressing one’s own opinions, and some are more respectful of the other human beings involved than others. Sometimes I suspect that when people are asking for respect for their beliefs, what they really want is respect for themselves, as persons. Not admiration, or liking, or agreement, necessarily–just basic respect.

    There’s also a difference between expressing disrespect for an opinion or belief, and expressing disagreement with it.

    Of course, we are all entitled, at some basic level, to express all the disrespect we may feel, most especially on our own blog. But if people are offended by the expression of disrespect for something dear to them, or perceived disrespect for themselves, it should not come as a surprise. And if they then express their feeling of offence–well, there you go, we all have the right to our opinions, and to expression of same. At that point, thinking of the question of what to say and how to say it in terms of rights only bogs us down, I think.

    Posted November 25, 2008 at 10:47 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    Quite right you are, as so often seems to be the case. Ceteris paribus, it is always best to be civil; it costs nothing extra.

    To some extent, though, respect is to be earned. Yes, there is a basic level of respect we accord one another as human beings — you would have to give pretty serious offense before I would drag your corpse through the street, for example — but the extent to which I am going to be able to bring myself to respect the bearers of certain beliefs is affected by how preposterously absurd the beliefs are, the bluster and arrogance with which they throw them around, how willfully obtuse the believer has to be to maintain them in the face of evidence to the contrary, how hard the other person is working to ram his beliefs down my own throat, and the degree to which the propagation of those beliefs is, in my opinion, harmful.

    And as for the beliefs themselves: well, imagine the world were obsessed with, say, invisible gnomes — and politicians seeking office had to make public declarations of their abiding faith in the gnomes, and the coinage said “In The Gnomes We Trust”, and gnome-worshipping societies were exempt from taxes, and all throughout history people had slaughtered each other because they couldn’t agree about what they were supposed to be doing to make the invisible gnomes happy, and when people’s children died of cancer the parents took comfort in knowing that, although the gnomes could have prevented it, at least their child was happy now, with the gnomes, and so on and so on, day in and day out, so that you couldn’t even sneeze without someone invoking the bloody gnomes — well, after 52 years of that, how would you be doing with the whole “respect” thing? You might start to feel as if the whole world was completely off its rocker, and you might also, despite a naturally civil and placid disposition, find yourself, every now and then, getting just the least bit snippy about it.

    But yes, some people are very decent, pleasant, generous folks, and one should be kind to them. I generally am, I think. But it is only in the case of religion that one is expected to be kind to an idea. If, in my deep-blue neighborhood, I were to walk into a bar and announce to all that neoconservatism is corrupt, feeble-minded hogwash, and that to espouse it is evidence not only of congenital idiocy but also moral turpitude — well, everyone will buy me a drink, and if there is some poor neocon sitting in the corner, that’s just too bad for him. But if you suggest that believing the Earth is only 6000 years old, and that corpses born of virgins can get up and walk around, might be evidence of foolish credulity, or that perhaps a set of ideas that impels young men to blow themselves up in a schoolyard is a dangerous mental infection, suddenly you are a pariah.

    Posted November 25, 2008 at 11:33 pm | Permalink
  7. pdg says

    obviously faith and reason are quite different things —

    but I have imperical reasons to have faith none the less

    just as i have no problem with evolution being described as intelligent design –
    or the Tao at work for that matter

    I do not see this as entirely black/white

    Posted November 26, 2008 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  8. pdg says

    just a quick note as to my outlook on these issues:

    Apparently Taoism is the easiest thing in the world. Yet because it is easy, none of us have a clue. And we sit here arguing about what nobody knows.
    In this book (Tao Te Ching) I think the pure metaphysical and epistomological essence of Taoism lies, the thing that attracted me to it. I found it to be deviod of the superstition and dogma of many other faiths, more of a philosophical system.

    Posted November 26, 2008 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  9. Addofio says

    Malcolm, I want to take up one of your paragraphs point by point.

    You say “but the extent to which I am going to be able to bring myself to respect the bearers of certain beliefs is affected by

    1) how preposterously absurd the beliefs are,”

    I would argue that this is precisely the case for which the distinction between the person and the belief, and respect for each, is most significant. It is possible to disagree with, and to criticize, even the most preposterous (to oneself) belief in emotionally neutral terms. To do so is a mark of basic respect for the person. To not do so, correspondingly, displays a lack of respect for the person, and an emotional indulgence of oneself, especially when expressing oneself in print, which allows one to edit and to consider the effect on one’s readers. Also, to consider that a person holding a belief that seems absurd to oneself automatically and in itself is a justification for not maintaining basic respect for the person’s humanity smacks of intellectual snobbery, at the least.

    “2) the bluster and arrogance with which they throw them around, ”

    I have a certain level of sympathy for the proposition that one person’s bluster and arrogance justifies bluster and arrogance in response (that is, if one person uses emotionally loaded or pejorative language, parity implies the respondent is justified in also using emotionally charged language). But even so, it all depends on what one wants to accomplish, on the purpose of the exchange. If one is looking to persuade another, then it is advisable to forego the emotionally charged language, because it will have the opposite of the intended affect. If the purpose is merely to express one’s feelings, with no anticipation of persuasion or the kind of dialogue regarding the ideas involved that might add to anyone’s level of understanding or insight–by all means, express away. But in that case, it’s more honest not to contend that it’s about the ideas, because it has become about feelings, not ideas.

    “3) how willfully obtuse the believer has to be to maintain them in the face of evidence to the contrary,”

    At a certain point, of course it may become obvious that there is no point in pursuing an exchange of ideas–you’ve learned everything you can about the other person’s thinking, and neither of you is about to change your mind. However, even so a certain level of humility about one’s own attitude toward the other person’s belief or belief system is warranted. I spend a good portion of my professional life trying to figure out what people think and why they think it , and 40 years of this have led me to conclude that very rarely do people hold beliefs for completely irrational reasons–even when they are wrong (objectively wrong, from my perspective), how they arrived at the beliefs made some kind of sense to them at the time.

    If someone is clinging to a belief in the face of what seems to me should be convincing contrary evidence, chances are that they are doing so for emotional reasons (or, they just don’t understand the contrary evidence, or perhaps how the evidence contradicts the belief in question.) If this is the case–intellectual arguments will have no effect, because it’s not about the ideas so much as the feelings of the person (and possibly of both people involved in the exchange).

    It’s also possible that the lack of understanding is in me, rather than the other person. That is, it may be that I don’t really understand just what the person is saying, or don’t understand what lies behind the belief. If I can figure that out, often it helps me to have more respect for the person, and avoid unproductive exchanges, even if I still do not share the belief myself.

    “4) how hard the other person is working to ram his beliefs down my own throat,”

    This seems related to the point about bluster and arrogance. As long as the “ramming” is verbal, then one is free to withdraw from the exchange, or to “ram” in response if one wants to indulge one’s feelings. Or, if one wants to affect the other person in some way–either to modify the persons belief, or to persuade the person to stop “ramming”– an emotionally neutral response may at least have some possibility to bringing the exchange to the level of ideas rather than feelings.

    “5) and the degree to which the propagation of those beliefs is, in my opinion, harmful.”

    It seems to me there are two possible ways of eradicating harmful beliefs from the world, or at least to reduce the number of people who espouse them to negligible numbers: either blast them away through strong appeal to feelings in some way, or to counter them with counterarguments or competing ideas. The history of the human species does rather imply that the former may be the more effective–at least in the short term.

    However, there is also encouraging historical evidence suggesting that in the long term, getting those competing ideas out there may be more effective. So once again, if we want someone to pay attention to our ideas–not our feelings, and especially not our feelings of contempt or anger or disdain–then using emotionally neutral language, respectful of the basic humanity of the people we are trying to persuade, is more likely to be effective. If we use emotionally loaded language, it is the feelings the language expresses that people will perceive and respond to. So it may well be that the more harmful one believes the ideas in question to be, the more careful one might want to be in the language one uses in opposition to them.

    Having gone through all this, it occurs to me that a lot of it–of being respectful of other people in the way I am trying to clarify–seems to have to do with separating feelings from ideas, or rather being clear about which is which. Let’s say I feel contempt (or just plain frightened) by someone’s ideas or the way in which they have expressed their ideas, and I want to respond in some way. I can display my contempt; I can try to modify my own attitude; or I can maintain my contempt or lack of respect, but choose not to display it to the other person.* The latter two types of responses display respect for the other person, and neither constrains one from arguing vigorously against the idea.

    *At least, one has this choice when one is writing. In person, one’s feelings may show before one is even aware of them oneself.

    Posted November 27, 2008 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Hi Addofio,

    First of all, thanks for taking the time — and on Thanksgiving, no less — to offer such a thoughtful comment. I think we see things rather differently, but it certainly might be productive to try to understand why.

    There is a lot to respond to here, and I’d like to spend a little time on it — but the house is full of family and guests today, so I will most likely take all of this up in a new post as soon as time permits.

    Posted November 27, 2008 at 3:13 pm | Permalink