The problem with tolerance; or, Liberal Stockholm Syndrome

1. The word “refugee” was introduced into English around 1685 when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes – signed by Henry IV in 1598 – and thousands of Protestant Huguenots fled Catholic persecution. Under the doctrine of compelle intrare (Luke 14:23) and the authority of Romans 13:4, the Christian magistrate banished or burned the nonconformists or the heretic at the stake.

Just after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Locke wrote his famous Letter Concerning Toleration that, despite its title, is narrower in scope than anything that, as Goldie observes, western Europe would see for another 175 years. Nevertheless, to his credit, Locke argues that toleration ought to be extended to non-Christians, including pagans, Muslims, Jews, and Native Americans (while, however, denying tolerance for atheists and Catholics (qua antinomians), unlike Bayle, whose position was more expansive). Locke’s position was inconsistent after the Letter but the first argument he advances there would be the foundation for (classical) liberalism since: i.e., the separation of church and state.

Locke, however, remained an evangelist, merely arguing that the state was not the appropriate instrument for that mission (and, moreover, that coerced conversion was ineffective). Locke did not concede any epistemic ambivalence about a “true faith” but, rather, advanced a more or less pragmatic argument that peaceful evangelism was preferable to torture and coercion.

1a. Modern liberalism, particularly of those varieties predicated on the admission of epistemic humility, on the other hand, is not only wider than Locke’s but suffers from two unresolved inner contradictions. First, given the conflation of toleration with (the fact of) plurality, we must resolve the paradox of intolerance, i.e., to answer the accusation that intolerance of intolerance is contradictory. Yet that is not the real contradiction, since the paradox is only apparent. Locke’s solution to the paradox is the reason he did not extend his argument to Catholics (and also the reason Hobbes writes the last two books of the Leviathan): if one believes that there is a higher authority than the state – such that religious moral authority trumps that of the state, whose function is to preserve the peace – then the very grounds for community are eroded by those who refuse to accept the norms of reciprocal equality. Those who reject the détente of civil society can have no place in it. For Locke, then, the principle of liberal toleration is not that “all creeds are equally valid” but, rather, “we must co-exist”. Thus there is no paradox of intolerance (or, in other words, no contradiction in the failure to tolerate the intolerance of tolerance). To those who wish the destruction of civil society – particularly through a denial of its fundamental egalitarianism – we owe no quarter.

Modern liberalism, however, has decoupled truth from pluralism. Locke’s evangelism did not require that we disavow the truth of our position but, rather, that we seek conversion by peaceful means rather than violent. Rational discourse, for example, is not merely a game of Show and Tell but a shared endeavor toward truth. The contradiction of modern liberalism is the simultaneous commitment to the denial of truth – since “no one has it” – and an insistence on toleration for the expression of any opinion for no purpose other than its expression (thus leading to the paradox of intolerance).

“I look on bad conscience as a serious illness to which man was forced to succumb by the pressure of the most fundamental of all changes which he has experienced, – that change whereby he finally found himself imprisoned within the confines of society and peace” (Nietzsche).

2. The bad conscience of modern liberalism has produced this second inner contradiction: that it entertains and invites not only their enemies but also their sympathizers to the table from the guilt of “understanding”. But even the noble Socrates observes that, as the “midwife” that assists others to gain knowledge,

I, with God’s help, [deliver] them of this offspring [i.e., wisdom]. And a proof of this may be seen in the many cases where people who did not realize this fact took all the credit to themselves and thought that I was no good. They have then proceeded to leave me sooner than they should, either of their own accord or through the influence of others. And after they have gone away from me they have resorted to harmful company, with the result that what remained with them has miscarried; while they have neglected the children I helped them to bring forth, and lost them, because they set more value upon lies and phantoms than upon the truth; finally they have been set down for ignorant fools, both by themselves and by everybody else. … Sometimes they come back, wanting my company again, and ready to move heaven and earth to get it. When that happens, in some cases the divine sign that visits me forbids me to associate with them …” (Theaetetus 150e – 151a; emphasis added)

But it is not only the fascists and the agents of civil destruction that ought not to be legitimated by discourse and “understanding” but those who are unable to recognize them because they have been corrupted by a self-fulfilling illusion of rational conviction masquerading as an open mind that can nevertheless admit of no truth that has not already been decided. Stupidity and error are corrigible but self-hating misology is not. If virtue only exists “as a gift from the gods” (Meno 100b), we can only pray that it is not too late for more of us to learn.

3. Resistance, however, is always too late. The need for resistance indicates that the tools which would have made it unnecessary will ipso facto be useless for it. Resistance requires not rationality but strength, as well as the courage to recognize the misplaced guilt of toleration for the guilt of responsibility. We are all guilty, Dostoevsky says, and “understand that you yourself are guilty, for you might have been a light to evil-doers … and were not a light. If you had been a light, by your light you would have illumined the path for others, too, and the person who did evil might not have done so in the presence of your light” (BK 14:291-2). Light, however, does not show the darkness but banishes it.