Recent “post-modernist” skepticism on the social and political value of tolerance has apparently produced higher levels of political polarization, especially in the U.S. One way to understand this development is to see the rejection of traditional doctrines of tolerance as a product of the regime of “political correctness” in the colleges and universities; and one may suspect as well that many a college and university has become a kind of institutional constituency of the major political parties and groupings. On the one hand, there are the hyper-liberal universities, often all too willing to suppress freedom of speech and open discourse, for the sake of “protecting” students from “abuse;” and on the other hand, there are any number of denominational universities, committed to universalizing a particular religious mission or doctrine, plus an array of newer “for-profit” universities which appear to be more oriented to serving the needs of business. My suspicion is that too many of these institutions, along with other major institutions of various kinds, have been enlisted in the support of political policies and programs designed to benefit particular candidates and parties. If so, the development depends on indirect action of competing sets of political operatives, attempting to benefit their employers, the actual public officials and candidates, by enlisting existing institutions, public and private, in support of political policies and ideological campaigns. In this way, the political system threatens to degenerate into one in which the politicians chiefly represent the interests of large-scale institutions and rule through their political operatives–and at the expense of the common good.
It is often said that “those who pay the piper get to call the tune,” and the “tune” in many colleges and universities has turned decidedly political, including considerable disrespect for political dissent and open discussions. Though mutual tolerance is a public good, and facilitates open debate and discussion, it appears to have been prevalently rejected to the benefit of ideological purity and the vehemence of loyal “true believers.” This culminates in a “crisis of representation,” in which the relationship between public officials and the public is mediated by hired political operatives who keep their political employers in a position of “plausible deniability.” If this analysis is anywhere near correct, then I suppose the configuration may well have arisen by means of a mere confluence of the interests of politicians, their dedicated office operatives and those major institutions (public and private) which benefit from public policies and largess. Suppression of the public’s mutual tolerance provides the “dependable base” of voters wanted by elected officials, though it also produces considerable levels of political polarization and governmental dysfunction. The cure would seem to be open discussion, debate and the return of commitment to political and social tolerance.
Most people in the United States agree that tolerance plays an important role in public life. However, what it means to be tolerant and the appropriate limits of what we should tolerate are a matter of serious debate. Some critics have gone so far as to argue that tolerance is not a virtue that we should be anxious to promote.In response to such critics, I will argue that tolerance is a virtue, and that it plays an indispensable role in public life for pluralist democracies. The virtue of tolerance helps us deal with a number of social problems. At the same time, we must be careful not to expect too much out of tolerance. It does not necessarily bring us to complete agreement or even mutual esteem. However, tolerance does enable us to live in a certain amount of harmony and agreement with each other, despite serious ongoing disagreements. For example, tolerance makes it possible for zealous Protestants and zealous Catholics to cooperate peacefully with each other in the United States, despite the fact that many people in both groups disapprove of each other‘s beliefs and practices.This point brings out both the promise and the limits of tolerance. Tolerance does not eliminate disagreement and opposition. It does not bring us to agree on the truth. Nor does it generally bring us to see our differences as something to cherish and affirm rather than as reasons for opposition. Rather, it allows us to engage in peaceful social cooperation despite our disagreements. These are the limits of the virtue of tolerance. At the same time, these limits point to its promise. This virtue does not bring us to agreement, but it does help us to find ways to grant each other a certain measure of peaceand freedom while the disagreements continue. In that respect, tolerance helps us form a kind of harmony while remaining true to our conflicting beliefs and practices. Moreover, I will argue that to the extent that we reject tolerance, we reject the goal of maintaining a community that enables mutual respect while allowing people to take their moral, religious, and cultural disagreements seriously.
In many cases, a person whotakes restrained action against some behavior counts as partly tolerating that behavior. Nevertheless, full toleration does not require that the person who disapproves take no action whatsoever. Some amount of active opposition to a behavior is compatible with full toleration. For example, suppose that Alice donates money to various charities, but consistently refuses to donate money to private schools. If the refusal to donate money were the extent of her opposition, we would probably not say that Alice refuses to fully tolerate private schools. Rather, her actions would more likely count as a refusal to support such schools.
In many cases, people will disagree about which actions count as a refusal to fully tolerate some behavior. For example, suppose that Bertram is a British Anglican who believes that the government of the United Kingdom should support Anglican private schools in England but not Jewish, Muslim, or Roman Catholic private schools. People‘s intuitions may disagree about whether this counts as a refusal to fully tolerate Jews, Muslims, and Roman Catholics.