Is tolerance the highest value?

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Is tolerance the highest value?

(CCU Faculty) As a professor of European history, I often travel to where tolerance supposedly reigns supreme. Many Europeans consider Americans to be very intolerant. During my last visit to Britain, while in the social hall of an Anglican parish, I endured over an hour long tirade on how ignorant and intolerant Americans were. The speaker was Laurence, a leftwing intellectual and lay leader of the parish, who decried Americans protesting against the mosque at ground zero. I found his arrogance extremely hard to tolerate, as he lumped all Americans together as ignorant bigoted tea partiers, who supported Sarah Palin, whom he equated with Adolph Hitler.

How much should we tolerate? Should I have tolerated Laurence’s tirade? I did. Should we tolerate the mosque at ground zero? I would. But how much do those supposedly tolerant people tolerate me? Do they tolerate those who smoke, those who wear fur, or those who voice their opinions on whether a mosque should be built at ground zero?

As a graduate student at the University of California, a seminal work in my doctoral research on toleration in late 17th century England was John Locke’s Letter on Toleration. A key quote from that book is Locke’s declaration that “Every man is orthodox in his own eyes.” Laurence is convinced that he is right, the protestors at ground zero are convinced they are right, and the Muslims wanting to build that mosque at ground zero are convinced they are right. Locke concluded, that the government has no right to persecute those who follow the dictates of their own conscience, but he never advocated that individuals be forced to abandon the dictates of their conscience, or deny others their right to peacefully criticize what they find objectionable.

At an interfaith gathering in a “progressive” church here in Colorado the topic was toleration. To the best of my knowledge I was the only conservative in attendance. At my table sat a Sufi Muslim, a new age guru, an openly lesbian clergywoman, and a DU professor of religion. The professor declared that toleration was insufficient. What was needed, he advocated, was something greater…affirmation. It wasn’t enough merely to tolerate another person’s aberration, we must affirm it. Those who refused to affirm the aberrant idea or behavior were considered intolerant. I responded, that I preferred the word “toleration”, for to affirm every aberration may violate certain values which I held. He was clearly uncomfortable with the fact that I even had values, at least any values that would not allow me to affirm the aberrant views of others.

I continue to prefer toleration to affirmation. I can put up with things with which I disagree, yet still wish to maintain my own values. However, when forced to affirm what violates my values, I lose my freedom to hold those values. Surely the value of freedom trumps toleration or even affirmation. I will allow others the freedom to be aberrant, but they must allow me the freedom to disagree. How ironic it would be for us to impose tyranny in the name of toleration.

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