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On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence

Freedom withers if a culture of 'therapeutic censorship' flourishes, argues Mary Warnock

The blurb writers who work for Continuum are fond of the word "pugnacious" to describe their products. The word is warranted in the case of Frank Furedi's essay On Tolerance. It is pugnacious, and it attacks a worthy and thoroughly contemporary opponent: the confused and degenerate concept of tolerance, increasingly deployed in politics and education.

One of Furedi's heroes is John Stuart Mill, whose famous 1859 essay On Liberty serves as his model for an understanding of the diversity to which tolerance should be extended. Yet his admiration for Mill is in a way irrelevant, and indeed forms part of the confusion that makes this book so difficult to read. For Mill, in On Liberty, passionately defends the right of people to choose their own way of life, to pursue whatever they personally value, and to refuse to succumb to the "tyranny of the majority". He is talking about individual choices, and I have no doubt that his wife Harriet Taylor was at his elbow, pressing the claim for individual women to break out of the shackles imposed by contemporary society.

Today, however, when we are told to tolerate diversity (or to celebrate it; for, as Furedi observes, diversity, once a scientific and neutral concept, has become morally loaded), it is groups of people who are to be so treated: people of different faiths, races, sexual orientation. Furedi is well aware that the focus of his argument is different from Mill's, but he quotes him nonetheless. Moreover, Mill was writing in defence of freedom; but when we have tolerance urged on us today, it is not only freedom that we are to allow to different groups, but respect.

The interplay between tolerance and respect is at the heart of Furedi's essay. His title could as well have been On Respect as On Tolerance - indeed, perhaps this would have been better. For the ambiguity of the word "respect", hovering as it does between the meanings of non-violation (of rights or privacy) and civilised politeness or esteem, lends itself to the very degeneration that Furedi deplores. It is a genuinely equivocal term.

"Tolerance", on the other hand, although generally taken to be the name of a virtue, is nevertheless tainted by its use to describe a grudging acceptance of something disliked, with the unenthusiastic adjective "tolerable" and its opposite "intolerable". Such semantic considerations are bound to influence our acceptance, or otherwise, of injunctions to tolerate minority groups. They all combine to suggest that the rest of society, although undoubtedly superior, is prepared to put up with groups whom they would prefer to be elsewhere. In contrast with this, Furedi wants us to accept "true" tolerance, to which I shall return.

Furedi associates the easy tolerance that degenerates into indifference with scepticism with regard to truth. Postmodernist scepticism, preached by, for example, the philosopher Richard Rorty or the popular theologian Don Cupitt, holds that there is no such thing as knowledge or truth. Every version of "truth" is as worthy to be heard as every other, as all are different narratives told from different points of view. We can, as Cupitt puts it, "keep darkness at bay" and amuse one another with our different stories, but there is no sense in the idea that we may together advance towards the common goal of truth.

In this climate of thought, it is easy to tolerate different narratives; indeed, there is nothing else we can do but listen politely and tell a different story. In this association, Furedi is surely right. And the deep flaw in such a laid-back theory of truth is that it does not work. In the most mundane way, we need to know whether, when we ask someone the time, they reply with a true answer; at a different level, we demand a distinction between the assertion that the Moon is made of green cheese and that it is not.

We know, moreover, that some versions of the alleged truth lead to violence and destruction; others do not. In the real world it is impossible to uphold the tolerance that would allow everyone to think what they like because thoughts are sometimes imperatives; they lead to actions. And so, as Furedi argues, the paradox of a political demand for tolerance is that it is combined with increasing attempts to control what we think and what we say and try to get other people to think. There is to be tolerance of a diversity of versions of the truth until these look threatening: then there is to be zero tolerance.

Alongside this increasing urge to control what we think and say, there is another enemy of real tolerance. To hold that there is nothing to choose between different versions of the truth is to be non-judgemental. But, Furedi argues, "without judgment, tolerance turns into a formulaic response whose main merit is that it unquestioningly offers respect-on-demand to different groups and standpoints". The fourth chapter of his essay, of which this statement is the opening, is the most wonderfully vitriolic attack on first, the demand that non-scientific gobbledegook and superstition be treated as equally worthy to be heard as painstakingly accumulated evidence-based science; and, second, on what he calls "therapeutic non-judgmentalism".

Critical judgement of the views of groups that are culturally different from our own is to be avoided, because to be judged is to be damaged. Criticism is psychological violence. All groups in society (except of course one's own) are to be recognised as "vulnerable", that is, unable to stand up against the injury of having their views and their culture subject to critical scrutiny.

This therapeutic view of tolerance or respect assumes that a person's identity is determined by the cultural group to which he belongs, and that therefore his self-esteem will be diminished if that culture is criticised. But there, of course, as Furedi points out, "the hypocrisy of non-judgmentalism comes unstuck: for what is really required is a positive verdict" if the self-esteem of the group is to be preserved.

The consequence of this therapeutic view of tolerance or respect is that there is an increasing tendency for governments to intervene to prevent the expression of opinions that might damage the feelings of those who may take them as insulting or even simply contrary to their own views. Because the groups are deemed "vulnerable", they are not thought able to stand up in their own defence.

And so we move on towards what Furedi calls "therapeutic censorship", within which framework governments attempt to intervene and control the personal expression of opinion. And so here, in the end, Mill becomes relevant; for such intervention with private freedom is precisely the opposite of the doctrine of On Liberty.

So what is the essence of tolerance? Furedi argues that real tolerance cannot exist unless every opinion, every theory, every religious or moral belief is thought to be the legitimate subject of debate, openly expressed and able to be scrutinised. Tolerance in this sense is a reciprocal attitude of equals, and the debate will be carried on, in the hope at least, that all are equally rational. If this is the case, the debate will move towards a consensual truth. Some beliefs and opinions must fall to superior evidence. It follows that there will be zero tolerance only for superstitious obstinacy.

I am not sure that the concept of tolerance can be stretched to cover this doubtless attractive and civilised ideal. For in the end the people whose views are deemed by the rational to be irrational or plainly morally wrong will be tolerated only in the old grudging sense of the term (or "respected" in the weakest sense). Redefining tolerance does not really help us out of our dilemma. But Furedi has addressed a subject of the greatest importance, has uncovered numerous contradictions and much deep hypocrisy in our social discourse, and for this he is to be respected in the strongest sense, indeed greatly admired.

The Author

Born in Budapest, Frank Furedi emigrated to Canada with his family after the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956. He says the fortnight of the uprising was probably the most intense period of his life, especially as his father and elder sister were actively involved.

After gaining a bachelor's degree in political science from McGill University, Furedi moved to England to pursue a master's and a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

He has lived in the UK for more than 40 years, but says: "I still feel like a nomad." His first impressions were that "the food and weather were horrible, the people required hard work - but intellectually it is the most stimulating environment I have ever encountered".

His non-intellectual passions are food, football and anything to do with mountains. When he left home at 16, he became homesick for Hungarian food, so his mother sent him a new recipe every week. In a different life he would have become a chef, he says, but he has been professor of sociology at the University of Kent since 1975.

On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence

By Frank Furedi

Continuum, 224pp, £16.99

ISBN 9781441120106

Published 18 August 2011

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