Tolerant to a fault

George Crowder, Flinders University

Alfred Herrhausen Society for International Dialogue, The End of Tolerance? London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2002 (279 pp). ISBN 1-85788-317-9 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

On the front cover of The End of Tolerance? a country lane stretches into the distance. In the foreground, a man, fashionably bald in the Foucauldian manner, balances on a stool trying to peer over a hedge. What is he looking for? Has tolerance disappeared behind the hedge? We cannot say. Like much else in this book, the image holds out the tantalising promise of something significant to be learned, but what that something is we glimpse only partially and fleetingly, as if from behind a hedge.

Toleration was little regarded in the 1990s. Compared with the multicultural ideal of the positive celebration of difference, the old practice of merely letting others alone even if you don’t approve of what they’re doing seemed a poor second best. In the aftermath of ‘September 11’, however, with international fanaticism fuelling global paranoia, toleration may now seem an invaluable and precarious achievement now lost at any rate, for much of humanity. Is this what is meant by ‘the end of’ toleration? Several of the contributors to The End of Tolerance? make passing reference to September 11, but none quite addresses this point. The hedge is still in the way.

What can be said is that The End of Tolerance? is a collection of brief essays and interviews commissioned by the Alfred Herrhausen Society for International Dialogue, which is funded by Deutsche Bank. The purpose of the Alfred Herrhausen Society, we are told on the back flap, is to provide ‘a forum for examining socially relevant issues, identifying the problems and discussing their possible solutions’. The issue here is whether tolerance can work in a world apparently short of shared moral and religious values. Undoubtedly the collection provides a forum for discussion of the question, since it features contributions from over 30 ‘well-known authorities’ (p. 18). It has to be said that many of these authorities are probably better known in Germany than in the English-speaking world, but they certainly come from a variety of academic and cultural disciplines and backgrounds. This variety is both the strength of the collection and its principal weakness. The many voices heard are agreeably representative of the multiple perspectives of a multicultural world. Collectively, however, they add up to little more than an incoherent Babel. The Warholian fifteen minutes allotted to each is never sufficient for any sustained argument to be developed. Issues are raised but not pursued, distinctions sketched but not developed, claims floated but not substantiated. The book is itself a microcosm of one way in which toleration can go off the rails: there is diversity here, but little coherence.

The many voices heard add up to little more than an incoherent Babel.

Historically the origin of toleration, at least in the liberal-democratic tradition of the West, is usually traced to thinkers such as John Locke, whose Letter on Toleration (1991) responded to the devastation wrought in Europe by the seventeenth century Wars of Religion. Locke was among those who saw the attempt by both Catholics and Protestants to impose their own versions of religious orthodoxy on one another as necessarily leading only to the escalation of violence and to ultimate failure, since faith, unlike behaviour, is necessarily an inward experience beyond the reach of force. Locke’s solution was to remove religious belief from the legitimate jurisdiction of the political authorities, placing it in a private realm as a matter to be decided by the conscience of the individual. For Dan Diner, in one of the more lucid essays in The End of Toleration?, this secularisation of the state, and corresponding privatisation of religion, is the key to greater openness, universality, and toleration.

Yet other contributors advance the idea of religion not as an obstacle to toleration but as a source for it. As Hans Kung observes, it can be either. Religious identifications can lead to rivalries and hatreds, but these are sometimes stirred up by elites whose basic motivations are really secular, having more to do with ambitions and resentments connected with modernisation and political power for its own sake. Moreover, religion may be used to defuse or de-escalate conflicts; Kung cites the non-violent examples of religious leaders such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama.

If religion as such is neither pro nor anti-toleration, what about particular religions? In this connection the case of Islam is, not surprisingly, a prominent subject of debate. On one side, Mahmoud Zakzouk, Egypt’s Minister of Religious Affairs, asserts that the most basic principles of Islam are principles of tolerance. The Koran commands equal respect for ‘all the prophets who have appeared since the dawn of mankind—prophets such as, for instance, Moses and Jesus’ (p. 236). This injunction extends to the followers of those prophets: ‘to this day, Jews and Christians are equal to Muslims in the countries ruled by Islamic governments, and they have in principle the same rights and obligations as Muslims’. The spread of Islam has been non-violent: ‘In its entire history, Islam has never been imposed by force’.

But the Minister is flatly contradicted by Bassam Tibi, for whom the kind of toleration sanctioned by orthodox Islam is wholly inadequate. First, traditional Islam tolerates only fellow monotheists such as Christians and Jews. Secondly, even these groups are tolerated only as Dhimmi, or ‘wards of the state’, who ‘enjoy fewer rights than the full members of Umma (the Islamic community)’ (p. 238). Furthermore, Islam claims universal superiority in relation to other religions—a point also made by Diner. For Tibi, orthodox Islamic toleration is ‘outdated and useless’ and ‘a form of discrimination’ (p. 240). Worse still is the outlook of radical Islamism, a ‘totalitarian ideology’ which is itself beyond the pale of toleration. The only solution, Tibi argues, is the reform of orthodox Islam and the suppression of radical Islamism. This latter imperative will involve a less tolerant, or indifferent, attitude on the part of those European states that have harboured radical Islamists in the recent past.

Some contributors see religion as a source, not an obstacle to toleration.

We arrive here at one of the most fraught issues: what does toleration require when it comes to dealing with groups and individuals that are themselves intolerant? To go back to Locke, his version of toleration was notoriously incomplete, since it explicitly excluded Catholics and atheists from the ambit of toleration, for reasons more compelling to a defender of the English Protestant political settlement than to anyone now. But the basic principle, once established, could be—and was—extended in line with its inner logic. In time, the principle of toleration was extended beyond matters of religion to other questions over which people incorrigibly disagree. One of the high points in the story of toleration is the argument of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1974) that the public, whether by means of state power or the sheer force of mass opinion, is entitled to restrict the liberty of the individual only to prevent harm to others. Even for contemporary societies which claim to be freedom-loving, Mill’s standard remains a challenging one. In the postcolonial era the issue has been complicated by the emergence of a more sensitive attitude to the claims of cultures. Toleration is now widely understood to include toleration of cultural practices different from, and perhaps in dramatic opposition to, the norms of one’s own way of life. But what happens when the culture in question is itself intolerant, either of other cultures, or of divergence from its norms among its own members, or both?

One extreme in this debate is represented by Slavoj Žižek, for whom the mark of a worthwhile instance of toleration is that it accommodates behaviour which is hard to put up with. The toleration portrayed in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where the black fiancé is well-educated and well-off, is too easy. A more challenging test is presented by ‘the proverbial African-American in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing who annoys the whites by walking around with his boombox turned up loud’ (p. 160). For Žižek, ‘it is THIS excessive and intrusive jouissance that one should learn to tolerate’.

There is some truth in this view, since it draws attention to an aspect of toleration often neglected, namely that toleration proper (as opposed to celebration) involves an element of disapproval of what is tolerated, a disapproval which is nevertheless not translated into active suppression. But Žižek’s claim is obviously in need of qualification he fails to provide. His underlying principle seems to be: the more intolerable the behaviour, the stronger the case for toleration. On this reasoning, the most powerful claims on our tolerance would be presented by the ‘intrusive jouissance’ of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.

Toleration should not be extended to the intolerant.

A more sensible view is expressed by Ian Buruma, who argues clearly that toleration should not be extended to the intolerant. He tells a story about an invitation he received to lecture at the Volkswagen Siftung in Hanover. The talk was to be on a theme summed up by the word Weltbűrger, developing the idea of a cosmopolitan outlook sensitive to cultural differences. Buruma chose to lecture on the tendency of Westerners to avoid offending successive Chinese governments because of the lure of the Chinese market. The response of Volkswagen, who have business interests in China, was to ask Buruma to talk about something else. Yes, Volkswagen was in favour of cosmopolitanism, but:

when they visited China, they realised that things like individual rights and freedom of speech meant something different to the Chinese, that we should not be so Eurocentric and in the end, who are we to tell the Chinese how things should be done? In the course of the conversation, it became clear that they were setting themselves up as progressive, liberal-minded, tolerant people, and I ended up being the neo-colonial Colonel Blimp (p. 66).

The phenomenon Buruma describes is highly significant. There are various ways of describing it. It might be called ‘excessive’ toleration, or (as in the piece by Walter Homolka) mere ‘indifference’ rather than anything that deserves the title of toleration at all. Alternatively, one might argue that what is really going on here is that different people are working with quite different conceptions of toleration, on the one hand toleration of individual differences—the Lockean toleration of the Western tradition; on the other, the toleration of group practices regardless of whether or not these themselves are tolerant—the ‘toleration’ practised, for example, under orthodox Islam.

Whichever description one prefers, the basic point remains the same. The attitude of the Volkswagen executives is an attitude not of toleration, at least in a form in which this notion has any value; it is a betrayal of that ideal. Toleration cannot be a licence for intolerance. It cannot be uncritical endorsement. To be tolerant towards others in a respectful way is not to refuse to argue with them; on the contrary, there is nothing more patronising than humouring a person you believe to be mistaken.

Still, perhaps there is something to be said even for blanket toleration. Without such accommodation we would have been deprived of the Epilogue to The End of Tolerance?, written, believe it or not, by Muhammad Ali. His announcement that ‘my whole adult life has been dedicated to peace’ is a fitting end to this decidedly mixed bag.


Locke, John (1991), A Letter Concerning Toleration [1689], ed. J. Horton & S. Mendus, Rouledge, London.

Mill, John Stuart (1974), On Liberty [1859], ed. G. Himmelfarb, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

George Crowder is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at Flinders University, Adelaide. He is the author of Classical Anarchism (1991, Clarendon Press, Oxford), and Liberalism and Value Pluralism (2002, Continuum, London).

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