The classical notion of tolerance provides the liberal solution for preventing conflict within society. But 'hyper-tolerance,' entailing the intervention of the state into what until recently were regarded as private concerns, endangers liberty itself. Robert Sibley examines the difference.

Robert Sibley
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, May 17, 2008

The real problem of liberty and tolerance is simply this: What is the object of contention worth? … According to the answer given to this question, the form of the struggle will range between internecine war and friendly argument.

– James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1873

The idea that Canadians are a tolerant people is the mantra of our times. After four decades of multiculturalism and constant ululation from politicians, pollsters and pundits on the joys of diversity, it's been drummed into our collective consciousness that tolerance is the existential pillar on which Canadian identity rests. We are Canadian; therefore, we are tolerant.

Small wonder, then, there was so much uproar last year when the municipal council in Hrouxville, Quebec, approved a “code of life” that immigrants were expected to adopt if they wanted to live in the community. Who did these country bumpkins think they were to question the shibboleths of diversity, difference and cultural relativism? Racists, xenophobes, fearmongers, ethnic chauvinists, “thick-headed ignorance” (to quote one editorial); such was the rhetoric with which the multicultists excoriated the tiny town of 1,138.

The Toronto Star editorial board reflected the consensus when it opined, “We cannot turn a blind eye to intolerance in communities such as Hrouxville, Que., where the town council set ignorant and offensive 'standards' for Muslim newcomers.”

The commentariat nodded in bobblehead agreement. “Across Canada there is a small segment of the population that harbours racist sentiments,” Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies, told the National Post. He saw dark and sinister forces at work: “What worries me is when there are individuals out there who try to exploit that sentiment, and that's what I think you're seeing here. People are making an appeal to xenophobic sentiment. Hrouxville is a classic example of that.”

Was the reaction warranted? The councillors' decision was worldwide news, and within days the town's website was inundated with messages; more than 95 per cent were supportive. No doubt, Hrouxville smudged the mirror in which the chatterati seek confirmation of their self-righteousness, but does that mean Quebec — or Canada — is rife with racism? That certainly isn't what the “reasonable-accommodation” commission set up by Quebec Premier Jean Charest concluded. After hearing from a wide cross-section of Quebecers, the commission judged that a majority of the statements it heard or received — 85 per cent — were “moderate or pluralistic.”

Certainly, the commission, which is has said it will release its report by the end of May, heard “very hard things” from a small minority that objected to the accommodation demands of various religious or ethnic minorities. Nonetheless, according to an analysis of the commission forums, less than two per cent of those who spoke said anything openly racist or xenophobic. Another 13 per cent said “negative” things about minorities, but these remarks were less hateful than “clumsy, half-baked, hurtful, ignorant and (feeding) off stereotypes and prejudices.”

In other words, you do not find a nation of intolerant bigots when you wipe away the multicultist cosmetics. Rather, you find that many Canadians question the policies imposed on them in the name of tolerance. According to a 2007 poll, 53 per cent of Canadians think immigrants should fully adapt to the Canadian cultural norms, while only 18 per cent say cultural and religious minorities should be completely accommodated. “A sizeable portion of Canadians have a relatively fixed view of Canada and what it is,” SES Research president Nik Nanos said in releasing the survey. “Part of that fixed view is a willingness to accommodate new Canadians, but not at the price of compromising what Canada really is.”

Indeed, sociologist Grard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor, co-chairmen of the Quebec commission, heard repeatedly that many Quebecers are concerned about the long-term consequences of multicultural policies and notions of toleration that, in their view, dilute long-held majoritarian values in order to accommodate the customs of immigrants. A Montreal hospital worker who spoke at one of the commission hearings cut to the chase when, in reference to demands for greater accommodation from Quebec's fundamentalist Muslims and Hasidic Jews, she said: “We shouldn't lose sight of the reasons that led to this commission — the things that irritated and upset people, and whose common denominator is religion.”

Such honesty is not bigotry or racism. As David Lam, a former lieutenant-governor of British Columbia who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong, put it: “When a Canadian is concerned about his own way of living, this concern is not racism.” The citizens of Hrouxville revealed, however inchoately, that Quebecers were concerned about what political philosopher George Grant once referred to as “the love of one's own;” that is, the love of those traditions, values and practices that provide people with meaning and purpose in their lives. To “love one's own” is not xenophobic. As Grant pointed out, it can be the source of genuine tolerance. “It is true that no particularism can adequately incarnate the good. But is it not also true that only through some particular roots, however partial, can human beings first grasp what is good and it is the juice of such roots which for most men sustain their partaking in a more universal good?”

I'll be keeping Grant's thought in mind throughout this essay series as I examine the concept of tolerance — its historical roots, its use and abuse, and, finally, what can be done to restore it to its proper purpose of maintaining the western liberal order. It is long past time that Canadians removed the must-not-disturb sign on the door of multiculturalism, shook off the sanctimonious dust that has settled on notions of tolerance and diversity, and recovered the principles truly necessary to liberal democracy.

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Tensions between co-operation and conflict are inherent in all societies. But this tension has increased dramatically in western societies in recent decades as a consequence of mass immigration, particularly from non-western countries. Many of the political and social problems confronting western states involve the presence of minorities, some of whose views conflict with those of the majority of the host society.

The situation has its ironies. Minority groups, some of whom have no tradition of human rights, regularly draw on western concepts of rights and human rights commissions to defend cultural practices that are contrary to liberal principles of freedom of expression.

In Canada, Syed Soharwardy, a Muslim imam known to advocate shariah law, filed a hate-speech complaint against the former publisher of the Western Standard, Ezra Levant, after he published cartoons the imam found offensive. Mohamed Elmasry and Naiyer Habib, two prominent Muslim Canadians, also filed complaints with federal and provincial human rights commissions against Maclean's magazine for publishing an excerpt from columnist Mark Steyn's book, America Alone, claiming it offends Islam. Egyptian-born Elmasry has been quoted saying that terrorism is legitimate against Jewish adults in Israel.

That so many fail to recognize the irony of using principles of human rights to attack constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression suggests considerable confusion about the concept of toleration. But then, politicians, bureaucrats and judges are often so afraid of offending the strictures of political correctness that they approve, tacitly or otherwise, illiberal practices in the name of accommodating cultural diversity.

Consider the case of the British publishing house that produced an interactive software version of the Three Little Pigs for children. The 3D book won several awards, but the British Education Communications and Technology Agency refused to approve it because, as columnist Lorne Gunter relates, “… the use of pigs raises cultural issues.” The agency informed the publisher, “… judges would not recommend this product to the Muslim community” because the porcine images might be offensive.

A ludicrous example, perhaps, but it demonstrates the intellectual incoherence that frequently surrounds the idea of toleration.

Toleration, both as a social and political practice and as a moral principle, resides at the heart of liberalism. Yet, even as we are bombarded with exhortations to “embrace diversity,” “appreciate difference” and “reach accommodation,” we seldom ask — or are too intimidated to ask — whether tolerance is always good.

Does tolerance mean accepting all views and values as equally worthy? To what extent must a host society accommodate alien values? Can a liberal society accept the presence of even a small activist minority whose cultural and political goals are utterly contrary to liberal values? We can approach those questions by trying to understand the concept of toleration itself, for, as political philosopher Andrew Murphy says, “the lack of agreed-upon definitions (of tolerance) leads us to misunderstand and misconstrue the liberal legacy, obscuring its accomplishments and well as its still unfulfilled promise.”

Historically, the concept of tolerance emerged as a response to the religious wars that devastated Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. “Understood as an attitude or state of mind, (modern) toleration … reflects the origins of religious toleration in the 16th and 17th centuries (as) simply a resigned acceptance of difference for the sake of peace,” says political philosopher Michael Walzer.

To be sure, notions of tolerance can be traced to the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament and the biblical injunction of “Do unto others has you would have them do unto you.” Nor should we forget the gifts of the Greeks. Socrates' dialectic method of philosophizing reflected the necessity of toleration in the give-and-take of debate.

Nonetheless, as historian Perez Zagorin says, it was only in the16th century that European thinkers seriously explored the problem of religious toleration and developed “an array of arguments (on) behalf of the principles of liberty of conscience, mutual tolerance, and religious coexistence and diversity.” Tolerance, in short, is “the offspring of European civilization.”

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The European with whom to start is Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English political philosopher. Hobbes “saw in religious division and clerical ambition a potent cause of political instability and civil war,” writes theologian A.J. Conyers. Hobbes saw that behind the English Civil War in the 1640s was the failure of the Church to provide order and stability. The fundamental purpose of any political regime is to provide security and peace, otherwise life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He advocated replacing the Church with the State, or Leviathan, as he called his new order in his 1651 book of the same name, as the best means to avoid chaos and violence. But he also insisted the state could accomplish this goal only if it kept religion out of politics.

John Locke, another 17th-century English philosopher, picked up on this idea. In “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” published in 1667, Locke, while drawing on Christian teachings to promote religious toleration, argued that religion must be restrained from imposing itself on society. “The business of true religion is not … instituted in order of erecting an external pomp, nor to the obtaining of ecclesiastical dominion, nor to the exercising of compulsive force,” Locke wrote. “The commonwealth seems to be a society of men, constituted only for procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.”

Thus, Hobbes and Locke carried out the “Great Separation,” the separation of church and state that is a cornerstone of western liberalism. As Conyers puts it, they, along with other early modern thinkers, relegated religion to “the realm of private convictions, thus preserving for the state the management of public affairs.”

The separation of religion and politics underpins two basic principles of modern liberalism: the autonomy of the individual and the neutrality of the state when it comes to defining the “good” life. In theory, liberal states provide the conditions — the rule of law, public institutions, etc. — that enable individuals to live as they see fit. The state does not interfere in the lives of individuals so long as their “personal” concerns — religious beliefs, lifestyle choices and cultural preferences — aren't detrimental to the “public” sphere. The state tolerates religious differences because it cedes matters of faith to the realm of private convictions, and religion no longer endangers public order because the churches leave the organizing of society to the state. In essence, then, says Conyers, the Great Separation saw certain kinds of thought — religious and moral thought specifically — confined to the private realm.

That does not mean everything can be tolerated in the public, or political, realm. Toleration cannot be extended to the intolerant, Locke argued, because that undermines the necessary conditions for tolerance. There can be no toleration of those who actively pursue claims — religious beliefs, for example — contrary to the moral structures necessary to preserve the state. Thus, the classical notion of tolerance provides the liberal solution for preventing conflict and maintaining co-operation.

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Of course, the notion of toleration has changed since Hobbes and Locke. Tolerance has been inflated to require “due recognition” of “private” differences, and even the public endorsement of all cultural practices and customs as equal. Philosopher Charles Taylor captures the thinking behind hyper-tolerance, as it's been called. It is no longer sufficient to “tolerate” or respect different customs or religious beliefs for the sake of civil peace. Now, we must avoid “misrecognition.” In Taylor's words: “Misrecognition shows not just a lack of due respect. It can inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred. Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need.” In other words, you mustn't dislike or offend anyone, lest it hurt someone's feelings.

Not surprisingly, such an inflation of toleration, the demand for due recognition, entails the intervention of the state into what until recently were regarded as private concerns. We now have numerous groups — from gays and feminists to obesity and anti-smoking activists — insisting their “private” lifestyles or cultural practices require “public” recognition. Religious groups, too, think their “private” concerns — wearing a hijab at soccer games, separate eating and prayer rooms in schools, not wearing motorcycle helmets, polygamist marriage, etc. — require the state to impose tolerance on the rest of society through legislative fiat or court-ordered diktat.

Not all such efforts succeed. In Ontario, an attempt to impose Muslim shariah law on the province's court system prompted such an outcry that Premier Dalton McGuinty was forced to reject allowing religious arbitration in matters of family law. John Tory's Conservatives were defeated in the recent Ontario election in large part because of an ill-thought policy regarding faith-based funding for schools. The Tories' loss was, if truth were told, a rejection by a majority of Ontarians of Muslim demands.

Nevertheless, hyper-tolerance isn't deflating anytime soon. The uproar over Hrouxville was evidence of that. Martin Collacott, a former Canadian diplomat, points out that the Hrouxville declaration welcomed immigrants regardless of their race, colour of skin, language, sexual orientation or religion. It was only the phrase “newcomers who came to live there should also be prepared to accept certain basic standards reflecting the traditions and culture of the townsfolk … (that got them) branded as xenophobes and racists.” In other words, the residents of Hrouxville, like many Canadians, aren't concerned about the kind of multiculturalism that holds newcomers should be welcomed and respected. Rather, their concern, in Collacott's words, “is over expectations that Canada must make changes to its institutions in order to accommodate the demands of newcomers.”

To be concerned about hyper-tolerance in its various multicultural manifestations — for example, Muslim taxi drivers in Minneapolis who want the right to refuse would-be customers if they have dogs or carry alcohol, because those things are offensive to their religion — is not racism or bigotry. Even Pierre Trudeau, the key architect of multiculturalism, regretted how multiculturalism had been warped to emphasize an immigrant's identification with his country or culture of origin rather than his assimilation of a Canadian identity. At a private luncheon with MPs in the mid-1990s, Trudeau was asked whether multiculturalism had developed the way he hoped. He replied: “No, this is not what I wanted.”

Nor, I suspect, is it what most Canadians want. It is not unreasonable (or xenophobic) to ask what happens to a liberal society when practices of hyper-tolerance require “accommodating” religious beliefs or customs that are contrary to liberal principles. I'll pick up on this issue in tomorrow's essay.

Robert Sibley is a senior writer for the Citizen.

Works Cited

Sources consulted or cited for this essay include:

John Bryden, a former Liberal MP, reported Pierre Trudeau's regrets about multiculturalism. Chris Cobb, “Canada's lost promise of multiculturalism,” Ottawa Citizen, Monday, July 4, 2005

Chris Cobb, “Accommodating minorities has its limits, poll finds,” Vancouver Sun, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007.

Martin Collacott, “Submission to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission,” and “Don't call it racism,” Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 2, 2007.

A.J. Conyers, The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, 2001.

George Grant, “Canadian Fate and Imperialism,” Technology and Empire, 1969.

Lorne Gunter, “Suicide by tolerance,” National Post, Jun. 28, 2008.

Jack Jedwab, quoted in the National Post, Feb. 3, 2007.

Andrew Murphy, “Tolerance, toleration and the liberal tradition,” Polity, vol. 29, 4, 1997.

Brigitte Pellerin, “Let the people — regular people — speak,” Ottawa Citizen, Feb. 6, 2007.

Toronto Star, “Triumph of Tolerance,” Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007.

Charles Taylor, “Multiculturalism and 'The Politics of Recognition',” 1992.

Michael Walzer, On Toleration, 1997.

Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Tolerance Came to the West, 2003.

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About This Series

Can society be too tolerant? The Bouchard-Taylor commission report on the “reasonable accommodation” of immigrants in Quebec is scheduled to be released by the end of May. It promises to be controversial, with nation-wide repercussions.

Today, senior writer Robert Sibley begins a three-part essay series examining the idea of toleration, how it's been abused and what is necessary to reclaim the concept as a cornerstone of a liberal society.

The series continues tomorrow and Monday.

The Ottawa Citizen 2008