Saturday, December 16, 2006

Tolerating intolerance

In 'What can we tolerate?', News Is Good puts lines across allegedly free religious convictions to pull the debate on religious tolerance in the direction of careful and critical moral objection. Currently, I am attempting to eradicate my own sense of morality (or, rather, to explode it), and I have had to come back to the notions of tolerance and intolerance to resolve a problem this creates.

I have always said, and have agreed with News on this, that the only thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance. To intolerance must be shown intolerance in return.

I now recognise that this is wrong, and that tolerance must be shown to intolerance. I shall offer a simple argument to this effect:

1) To be intolerant is to not consider all relevant facts
2) Intolerance must be dealt with justly
3) It is just to consider all relevant facts
Therefore, 4) We must not deal with intolerance intolerantly

To clarify this a little, imagine a situation in which a person, A, is being intolerant of another person, B. Specifically, A and B are walking together with B's dog, which B keeps on a lead. B's dog, 'Mr.Doggenson', repeatedly stops to sniff lampposts, which interrupts the conversation between A and B. After a few stops, A becomes annoyed and chastises B for allowing her dog to stop so much, and eventually A becomes so annoyed that he walks off in a huff. Now imagine that just before A walks off in a huff, another person, C, joins the walk. What does C say to A? Let me frame C's dilemma by considering hypothetical reasons behind A and B's attitudes.

The problem between A and B concerns the importance of the dog's natural disposition. B understands that, firstly, Mr.Doggenson cannot appreciate the level of interaction between A and B, and does not know that it is uncomfortable for them to stop every time he wants to sniff something; and secondly, B understands that it is important to allow the dog to do what comes naturally to him. This is why B stops while her dog satisfies his curiousity. A, however, is only aware of the negative feelings engendered by the interruption, and is not considering Mr.Doggenson at all.

C can either deal with A tolerantly or intolerantly. For C to be intolerant of A is to react to A's chastisements without considering them sufficiently to know what is best to do about them. C in this case is unjust regarding A's behaviour. On the other hand, should C be tolerant of A's chastisements, C would be able to think rationally about how A's disposition brings it about that A is behaving in this way, and would thereby be able to act occordingly. C in this case is just.

How does this stand with News' article? First of all, moral reactions to damaging beliefs and belief systems (in the sense of not tolerating them / not considering them with sufficient scope) are unjust. This answers News' question, "Is tolerance of a belief system more pressing than intolerance of harm?".

In a more general way, we can deal with the thrust of News' argument by dealing with the maxim that 'when a person believes something from which harm is done, and expects to be tolerated for being sincere, we should critically refuse this support.' The difficulty lies in this last clause 'we should critically refuse this support', and concerns what we mean by 'critically' and 'support'. For we tend to think that tolerance involves assent, and that correction works upon expressions. I will leave this analysis open, for anyone who wishes to clarify it in the comments section below.


Blogger News is Good said...

Your Proposition 1) To be intolerant is to not consider all relevant facts
Your Proposition 3) It is just to consider all relevant facts (I infer: ", and to be unjust is the opposite").

Inferred conclusion: Therefore to be intolerant is to be unjust

And, I ask, can it be just to allow injustice - i.e. to tolerate it?

I am not at all sure if this argument is anything but a wheedling annoyance, but I am wondering if there is a case to make in the favour of not tolerating intolerance that you have not considered.

I might similarly subvert your words with: "When a person believes something from which harm is done, and expects to be tolerated for being sincere, we should support the case for tolerance critically". And if tolerance is not deserved, we must do away with the harmful practice.

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello. Dealing with your problems:

1) "can it be just to allow injustice?"

This is the case of saying that by tolerating something we agree with it (allow it). The idea I've been trying to push is that we can't deal with injustice by being unjust toward it, but only by being just. If the problem is a lack of tolerance and we want to do something about it, we should be tolerant of it such that we can sufficiently understand it, and not simply to react (by invoking moral authority) by being intolerant. We might ask whether, after understanding is gained, we have the right to be intolerant. However, we will have already gotten past this, and be in the realm of reasoning about the situation. Insofar as we understand something we affirm it (though we pass from the appearance to the reality of that thing).

2) "When a person believes something from which harm is done, and expects to be tolerated for being sincere, we should support the case for tolerance critically"

If we critically appraise what in a behaviour is tolerable, we have already assumed that the intolerable parts of the behaviour shouldn't be tolerated, so this begs the question.

I should also say (because it coincides with the penultimate sentence of my post), that this idea also implies that correction works at the level of analysis of what has been produced, to show error and absurdity (in the expression). What we would be dealing with is language, from which we work backwards to posit a value judgement on behavioural characteristics. In this way we will say that there is an unnatural center of decision making - a transcendent willing - that is responsible for arbitrary moral choices informing these behaviours.

On the contrary I'm sure we should say that the closer we get to the nature of desire, the more determined and unconscious we regard it. Understanding the effects that issue from the person by taking these effects back towards their necessary production should remove the application of perjorative morality.

7:48 PM  

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