Is Tolerance Self-Undermining?




In light of all of the hullaballoo surrounding Brendan Eich’s resignation from Mozilla for his political views regarding same sex marriage, I have been musing over the meaning and practice of “tolerance”. In the name of “tolerance”, Eich was pressured to resign because he is supposedly intolerant of same sex marriage. However, supporters of Eich contend that this is just being intolerant in a different way, by refusing to tolerate Eich’s political beliefs.

Who is right? In some ways, I think neither is, because the notion of “tolerance” seems to be self-contradictory, or at least, self-undermining. Here is a brief sketch of an argument that illustrates my musings.

Tolerance (from “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.”

  1. Suppose person A believes in the ideal of tolerance. Then person A believes in holding a “permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.” Ideally, this applies to all opinions and practices.
  2. Suppose person B does not believe in the ideal of tolerance. Then person B does not believe in holding a “permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.” There are some opinions and practices that one ought not to hold a permissive attitude towards. One such opinion is upholding the ideal of tolerance.
  3. If person A is to uphold the ideal of tolerance, then person A must believe in holding a permissive attitude towards person B’s belief that one must not hold a permissive attitude towards all opinions and practices. That is, person A must believe in tolerating person B’s belief in not tolerating person A’s belief in tolerance.
  4. Therefore, person A must tolerate a belief in intolerance; person A must be permissive towards impermissive attitudes towards being permissive.
  5. Person A cannot really say anything or act against person B’s intolerance, since person A must tolerate that intolerance. Person A essentially forfeits any real ability to counter person B’s opinions and practices.
  6. Person B can (if he or she wishes) seize upon that opportunity and strike against the ideal of tolerance or any other disagreeable view person A has (since person B doesn’t believe in tolerance).
  7. In order to combat this, Person A must resist such intolerance towards tolerance. But in so doing, person A must become intolerant towards intolerance.
  8. But then tolerance has had to undermine itself in order to preserve itself.

Consequently, it appears that one cannot truly uphold the ideal of tolerance. One must be intolerant of intolerance if tolerance is to survive. But then tolerance has not survived, since one has used intolerance to preserve tolerance. Thus, either way, the ideal of tolerance is destroyed.

In short, one cannot hold a permissive attitude towards all opinions and practices. One must be intolerant of some beliefs if one is have any beliefs at all.

Consider the case at hand. Mozilla recently posted, “Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness. We welcome contributions from everyone regardless of age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views. Mozilla supports equality for all.” But what happens when, for example, religious views and views on sexual orientation collide? One cannot in this case support equality for all. One must choose, and Mozilla has chosen, equality for sexual orientation above equality for religious views. When push comes to shove, permissive views on sexual orientation trump permissive views on religion.

This just highlights the doomed effort to be inclusive of everyone and every view. By including and supporting people that, for example, do not consider sexual orientation to be problematic, you necessarily are excluding the viewpoints of those that do believe it to be problematic. You are siding with one view against another, even if only implicitly. One cannot be neutral. To be open to some views is to be closed to the opposing views.

In conclusion, I believe both sides in the Eich drama should admit that they are being intolerant of some views. Which is fine. Let’s stop fighting about who is tolerant and intolerant. These are buzzwords anyway. Instead, let’s focus on the issues at hand and what our society should do about it. Since we can’t embrace every view, let’s discuss which views should be supported over others, which compromises should be made, and then confidently defend our decisions and beliefs on these controversial matters. It may be “intolerant”, but it is definitely more honest, genuine, and I believe in the long run, will be much more productive in moving forward on these issues.





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