A Return To Tolerance

A return to tolerance

Robert Sibley
Ottawa Citizen
Monday, May 19, 2008

Our quest for a 'maximally tolerant society,' which presumes all beliefs are equally correct and valid, has allowed intolerance to flourish. Genuine toleration presumes disagreement, accompanied by mutual respect.

It is about competing views, not an excuse for moral cowardice. It demonstrates the possession of values,and the willingness to defend them. And a society uncertain about its values will be incapable in the long run of toleration.

Complete moral tolerance is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other … that is to say, when society is at an end. If, on the other hand, every struggle is treated as a war of extermination, society will come to an end in a shorter and more exciting manner, but not more decisively. A healthy state of things will be a compromise between the two.

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

The virtue of toleration has been much abused in recent decades. The original notion of toleration, the toleration promoted by political thinkers such John Locke and James Stephen, was based on two assumptions: that humans are flawed creatures, and that freedom is a necessary requirement for a flourishing life.

Recognizing the impossibility of human perfection, these early moderns understood that genuine toleration is a hard-won habit. It is not easy to put up with the views, values and activities of those with whom we disagree, and of whom we might even disapprove. Yet, for men like Locke, toleration, rightly understood, is a necessary precondition for any stable, orderly and decent way of life among imperfectible creatures.

Unfortunately, this minimalist concept of toleration is not good enough nowadays. The classical idea of toleration is unfashionable, in part at least, because society as a whole no longer accepts the Christian notion of humans as inherently flawed and prone to evil. We tend to think that all we need to create the perfect world and establish universal peace is the correct social program, the right government or the latest technological fix. The idea that we have to “tolerate” our imperfection is, well, intolerable.

Indeed, dissatisfied with tolerance as a virtuous habit of patience and forbearance, we've tried to sidestep the need for it though various attempts to overcome our flawed nature. Whether through politics or pills, biotechnology or behavioural modification, we seek to order human experience in terms of safe, comfortable and passive contentment. As philosopher John Gray puts it: “Grounded as it is in accepting the imperfectability of the human lot, (classical) toleration is bound to be uncongenial to the ruling illusions of the epoch, all of which cherish the project of instituting a political providence in human affairs whereby tragedy and mystery would be banished.”

One result, as I argued earlier in this series, has been the inflation of tolerance into hyper-toleration; that is, extreme toleration in which all lifestyles, beliefs, cultural practices and moral claims are, in theory, recognized, esteemed and validated because all are equal. Why this is a problem and what can be done about it is the focus of this last essay. The place to start is with the idea of multiculturalism because it is the form through which toleration is most fully manifested in our society.

In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms officially enshrines multiculturalism in the Constitution. Imposed on the country by the Liberals, the idea was to create a new Canadian identity that would weaken the centrifugal forces that tended to fragment the country, particularly the tension between French- and English-speaking Canadians. By and large, the country's elites think it worked, for a time at least. In the words of philosopher Daniel Marc Weinstock, Canadian multiculturalism is “a remarkable success” for having “woven a highly diverse population, drawn from the four corners of the planet, into a peaceful, prosperous and remarkable cohesive society.”

Yet, Weinstock acknowledges that recent demands by some minorities have gone beyond the soft multiculturalism of past decades — what multicultural bureaucrats call the “three Fs: Fun, Food, and Fashion” — to the hard multiculturalism of wanting “exemptions from laws and policies applying to the broader society” in order to “make room for the precepts that they derive from their religions.” Even Environics pollster Michael Adams, while finding Canadians generally support multiculturalism, concedes many “are indeed starting to worry that this country may have bitten off more than it can chew when it comes to the integration of newcomers of vastly different religious, cultural and ideological backgrounds.”

So it seems. The Hrouxville controversy, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on “reasonable accommodation,” the religious undercurrent in the recent Ontario election — these are not isolated phenomena. Taken together they suggest that four decades of multiculturalism are beginning to produce tensions they were supposed to prevent. According to the magazine The Walrus, Canadians “are far from sanguine about the country's increasing diversity.” Citing a 2005 Strategic Council study that 75 per pent of those surveyed think Canada is accepting too many immigrants, the magazine concludes that “to some extent, it seems that Canadians, like their brethren in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, have had their fill of multiculturalism, hyphenated citizenship, and the like … There is also growing evidence that Canada's fabled mosaic is actually fracturing into community self-segregation by ethnic group.”

The Toronto Star recently offered an example of “enclave” thinking when it reported Hindus in Canada were upset at regulations that prohibit them from dumping the ashes of their dead in Canadian rivers. Reporter Prithi Yelaja, citing a Ryerson University study, wrote, “rigid provincial and municipal regulations regarding funerals and burials, created primarily to accommodate western Judeo-Christian customs, are forcing faith communities to adjust to the law rather than have the freedom to practise their final rites.”

The reference to Judeo-Christian customs is telling. The reporter implies that existing regulations are culturally relative, and it is only the biases of “Judeo-Christians,” who, by an accident of history got here first, that are preventing Hindus from doing as they wish. Such a slant suggests that some in the Hindu community regard multiculturalism as a one-way street, a policy that allows them accept only those Canadian laws and traditions that suit their purposes, but to otherwise avoid integration into the mainstream of Canadian society.

This not what the originators of multiculturalism intended, of course, They saw multiculturalism as a way to promote tolerance, to ease the integration of immigrants into western societies, both for their own good and that of the host country. But good intentions often produce flawed results. In the case of multiculturalism, says Martin Collacott, a former Canadian diplomat, the result has been “the expectation among many members of immigrant communities that Canada is committed to accepting and adapting to whatever traditions, beliefs and practices they bring with them.”

Nearly 40 years later, even some of the original architects of multiculturalism are rethinking the issue. In 2005, Bernard Ostry, the former senior public servant responsible for drafting and implementing the federal multicultural policies in the 1970s, acknowledged that a policy aimed at helping immigrants to better participate in Canadian life is now being criticized for having had the opposite effect of encouraging minorities “to retreat to their own corners.”

But it's not just Canada where the shibboleths of hyper-tolerant multiculturalism are being challenged. European countries, including Germany, France, Spain and Italy, have introduced, or intend to introduce, measures that impose greater obligations on immigrants to adopt the customs of their host countries. In 2006, then-British prime minister Tony Blair effectively pronounced the end of hyper-tolerant multiculturalism in the United Kingdom, saying immigrants have “a duty” to integrate into the mainstream of society. “Conform to it; or don't come here … If you are permitted to stay here permanently, you become an equal member of our community and become one of us.”

The British government recently followed through on Blair's admonishment, announcing new immigration rules that will place those seeking British citizenship on probation for at least a year to show they can speak English, pay taxes, obey the law and, perhaps most importantly, “integrate into local life.” The government is concerned that immigrants who don't integrate into British society foster conditions that can, as one news report put it, “lead to intolerance.”

Does this mean “the end of tolerance,” to borrow an editorial headline in the Sunday Times? The answer has to be yes, if we are referring to the kind of hyper-tolerance that breeds intolerance. As the newspaper noted, only in western countries, with their traditions of tolerance, have “extremist factions been given the space to spout anti-western hatred.” Indeed, that is exactly what has happened. The West's experiment to create the “maximally tolerant society,” to borrow philosopher David Stove's phrase, has, paradoxically, allowed the emergence in western societies of those who want a “maximally intolerant society.”

Interestingly, some Muslim commentators make exactly this argument. “As Westerners bow down before multiculturalism, we anesthetize ourselves into believing that anything goes,” writes Irshad Manji, a commentator who's been the recipient of death threats for criticizing radical Islam. “We see our readiness to accommodate as a strength — even a form of cultural superiority (though few will admit that). Radical Muslims, on the other hand, see our inclusive instincts as a form of corruption that makes us soft and rudderless. The more we accommodate to placate, the more their contempt for our 'weakness' grows.” The ultimate paradox, Manji says, may be that defending diversity will require westerners “to be less tolerant.”

Two Muslim scholars, Haideh Moghissi and Shahrzad Mojab, Iranian-born academics who teach, respectively, at York University and the University of Toronto, echo this view. In a recently published an online essay, they argue that too many people in the West bow to the demands the “rigid totalitarian ultraconservative Islam” in the name “respecting their cultural heritage.” This, they say, “is to give up on principles of citizens' equality before the law and the hard-won norms of women's rights. Still worse, tip-toeing around the harmful cultural practices as some left and feminists are doing is tolerating for Others what is intolerable to 'us.'”

The two academics denounce those who allow their vaunted tolerance to promote intolerance. “The fact is that in Canada we are facing a very serious and growing problem of the rise of religious zealotry. Canadian multiculturalism, failing to combat racism and Muslim-phobia, is gradually moving towards adopting faith-based multiculturalism, allowing the formation of cultural ghettoes immune from social and legal scrutiny against violations of human rights.”

There is irony in this situation. Multiculturalism is rooted in a concept of tolerance conceived by western philosophers. Yet, contemporary postmodern thinkers teach that western societies are inherently racist, imperialist and proto-totalitarian (not to mention phallocentric, homophobic, etc.). The achievements of the West — the rule of law, democratic government, individual rights, equality of opportunity, economic affluence, etc. — are deliberately depreciated and excoriated.

For nearly five decades postmodern intellectuals have claimed that the assimilation of non-western immigrants is wrong because it presumes the superiority of western culture. These cultural relativists insist that the contemporary West, with its hard-won heritage of the rule of law, political freedom and individual rights, is no better than those cultures that remain tyrannical, violent and oppressive. The result has been a “therapeutic multiculturalism,” to borrow philosopher Michael Walzer's phrase, that promotes the relativity of all cultures and values. But this relativistic multiculturalism amounts to a de facto surrender of those values and traditions that are the very source of tolerance. Therapeutic multiculturalism, says Walzer, threatens to undermine “every sort of common identity and standard behaviour,” creating “postmodern vagabonds” who “may not be the most tolerant fellow citizens.”

Unfortunately, this imprudent thinking has infected the public mind with uncertainty and doubt regarding western values and achievements. So much so, says philosopher Roger Scruton, that “western societies are experiencing an acute crisis of identity.” Many westerners no longer conceive of themselves according to the Enlightenment ideal as rational creatures capable of rising above the limitations of birth, culture or geography. Now they assume their sense of identity, their sense of belonging, is tied to a particular religion, ethnic group or lifestyle community. This is a reversion to tribalism. And to the degree postmodern multiculturalism fosters this new tribalism, it threatens the West's liberal heritage.

The retention and continuance of that heritage requires putting an end to the self-flagellating psychology of anti-western postmodernism. One small step in this direction is the recovery of toleration, properly conceived. Genuine toleration presumes disagreement. This disagreement, however, is accompanied a willingness to treat the one with whom you disagree decently and respectfully. That doesn't mean, as the postmodern multicultists insist, that you are required to support, nourish, esteem or validate beliefs or lifestyles with which you disagree.

Tolerance, rightly understood, demonstrates “patience toward a practice or opinion one disapproves of,” say ethicists Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti. But it also implies limits to tolerance. “Tolerance allows for prudent moral criticism and strongly held individual belief.” That is to say, because toleration is invariably connected to moral judgment, it requires a willingness to confront competing views about the best political and social order. Put bluntly, tolerance cannot be, as it so often is now, an excuse for moral cowardice. Treacly invocations of “difference,” “diversity” and “mutual respect” are a cop-out, the rhetoric of those who have no convictions. Real tolerance, say Stetson and Conti, is a “moral tool” for the building and maintenance of civic order.

Political scientist Philip Resnick applies this criteria of tolerance to the Canadian context when he says “Canadians need to put some water into their multicultural wine and stop celebrating … the gifts of difference.” They need to be more hardnosed in “emphasizing what core Canadian values really are instead of making of diversity an end in itself.” Canada “is not a blank slate to be reinvented with each new immigrant or group of immigrants that arrives at our airports.”

Indeed, Canada's values — peace, order, constitutional government, individual freedom and equality before the law — are grounded in the political and social traditions of its western European heritage. Therapeutic multiculturalism, the multiculturalism that makes everyone feel good about themselves, is no substitute, says Resnick, “for a civic consciousness in which ethnic, religious, or racial origins take second place to the things we share as Canadians; or for core political values.”

On this view, then, toleration does not, as the postmodernists would have it, reflect doubt or uncertainty about our ability to proclaim values. Rather, it demonstrates the possession of values, and the willingness to defend them. As John Gray puts it, “A tolerant man does not doubt that he knows something about the good and the true; his tolerance expresses that knowledge.” Equally, the truly tolerant society reveals its capacity for tolerance to the degree it possesses a widely shared conception of the good and the true. A society uncertain about its values — as appears to be the case in many western countries, including Canada — will be incapable in the long run of toleration. A tolerant culture, says Gray, doesn't necessarily require a shared religion or even ethnic homogeneity, but it does demand widespread acceptance of particular norms and values, and, above all, a shared sense of nation. “A stable liberal civil society cannot be radically multicultural because it depends for its successful renewal across the generations on an under-girding common culture.”

Gray's conclusion returns me to the circumstances and the thinker with whom I began this series. The controversy that erupted over the Hrouxville “code of life” demonstrated that many Quebecers — and many other Canadians, too — are concerned about what political philosopher George Grant described 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 is through our particular roots that we first gain access to a more universal good.

The same, I suggest, holds true for toleration. By learning to tolerate each other we gain a more universal perspective on how much we share. Indeed, those who acquire the habit of tolerance often find they have much in common without having to surrender their own values. The challenge we face today is avoiding the abuses of toleration — hyper-toleration, in short — that make sharing values or finding common ground so difficult for flawed and imperfectible citizens such as ourselves.

Robert Sibley is a senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen.


Works cited

Books and articles consulted for this essay include:

Michael Adams, “Surprise, Canadian pluralism is working,” Toronto Star, Nov. 10, 2007.

Martin Collacott, “Submission to the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Difference, (Bouchard-Taylor Commission),” 2007.

John Gray, “The Virtues of Toleration,” National Review, Oct. 5, 1992.

Irshad Manji, “Why Tolerate the Hate? New York Times, Aug. 9, 2005.

Haideh Moghissi and Shahrzad Mojab, “Of 'Cultural' Crimes and Denials: Aqsa Pervez,” www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16155, January, 2008.

Bernard Ostry, “Digging Up Identity Issues,” Globe & Mail, Nov. 15, 2005.

Philip Resnick, The European Roots of Canadian Identity, 2005.

Roger Scruton, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, 2007; and “The glory of the West is that life is an open book,” The Sunday Times, May 27, 2007.

Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti, The Truth about Tolerance, 2005.

The Sunday Times, “An end to tolerance,” Feb. 12, 2006.

Walrus Magazine, “Identity Crisis,” March, 2006.

Michael Walzer, On Toleration, 1997.

Daniel Marc Weinstock, “Multicultural Growing Pains,” Literary Review of Canada, Jan.-Feb, 2008.

Prithi Yelaja, “Funeral law fails ethnic groups,” Toronto Star, Oct. 27, 2007