Classic Tolerance

June 23, 2013

An article by Greg Koukl provides some insight into the idea of “tolerance”:

“Egalitarian” was a new word for them. “Think equal,” I said. “Treat others as having equal standing in value or worth.” They knew what an elitist was, though, someone who thought he or she was better than others. “Right,” I said. “When you are elitist regarding ideas, you are acknowledging that some ideas are better than others; and they are. We don’t treat all ideas as if they have the same merit, lest we run into contradiction. Some ideas are good. Some are bad. Some are true. Some are false. Some are brilliant. Others are just plain foolish.”

The first principle, what might be called “civility,” is at the heart of the classical view of tolerance. It can be loosely equated with the word “respect.” Tolerance applies to how we treat people we disagree with, not how we treat ideas we think are false. We respect those who hold different beliefs from our own by treating such people courteously and allowing their views a place in the public discourse. We may strongly disagree with their ideas and vigorously contend against them in the public square, but we still show respect to their persons despite our differences. Classic tolerance requires that every person be treated courteously with the freedom to express his or her ideas without fear of reprisal no matter what the view, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or truth.

. . . The view that one person’s ideas are no better or truer than another’s is simply absurd and inescapably self-contradictory. To argue that some views are false, immoral, or just plain silly does not violate any meaningful definition or standard of tolerance.

In other words, to paraphrase philosopher Peter Kreeft, we should be egalitarian with respect to people and elitist with respect to ideas, but never vice-versa.

Just a thought experiment, roll with me…

What if, in the American Civil War era, it was the North that insisted upon permitting slavery whereas the South opposed slavery?  So, in that vein, let’s say that the northern states began to seek to impose pro-slavery or slavery-compromising legislation upon the southern states through the federal government and supreme court, and then the southern states seceded from the United States on the grounds that they would not permit the northern states to impose their unjust pro-slavery national laws upon them.  The southern states create a confederacy which will protect each state’s ability to outlaw slavery (or not) and no other state will be able to impose legalized slavery upon them.

First question: in this situation, would you prefer that the confederates (southerners) win the civil war rather than the union northerners?  In other words, would you root for the pro-slavery north or the anti-slavery south?

Second question: if we took away the issue of slavery altogether, would you prefer confederacy or our current federal government?  What’s better, each state left to decide its own fate, or a national government deciding once for all?

Now, in this hypothetical, keep in mind that if you said you prefer a strong federal government, someone listening might call you a “racist” for supporting a form of government that once supported slavery.

Just a thought…