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The problem of tolerance: Are we strong enough to disagree (and keep talking)?

To be tolerant today means to refuse to ever say that someone is wrong. In the post-modern version of tolerance, you are tolerant not of individuals, but of all views – except that view which disagrees with your concept of tolerance. In this case, the individual who disagrees with your view of tolerance is intolerant, and not to be tolerated. Feel free to disagree with me on what I believe to be the new tolerance, but please, realize the implications of your disagreement.



By Sean Evans (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: October 24, 2012

The concept of tolerance is an extremely offensive one. In order for one person to tolerate another, the one must believe the other to be wrong. Inherent in my tolerance of you, there is something in you that I find to be intolerable. Tolerance cannot exist without a significant, meaningful disagreement.

Now, the temptation here is to say, “Yes! We must ignore that which divides us—quite frankly, it is insignificant or a private matter—and simply love each other.” While that sounds great, here is the problem. Truth matters. You believe that. You have no ground on which to disagree with it. If the statement is incorrect, how would you describe it? As false? A concise way I’ve heard it put; any system of thought that denies truth, denies itself.

And if truth matters, so do ideas and beliefs, so do ideologies and so does what we believe about tolerance. My question is this: are we willing to tolerate tolerance? Are we willing to accept that we all hold exclusive beliefs? Christianity is exclusive; if it is true, all other concepts of reality are incomplete or incorrect. Atheism is exclusive; if it is true, all other concepts of reality are incomplete or incorrect. Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and the recently created Vietnamese religion Cao Dai, are all exclusive.

Let’s take it a step further; the belief that no one faith or belief system has the right to claim exclusive truth is itself an exclusive belief, in that it excludes all those who would say “here is truth.” In this worldview, the only permissible exclusive truth is the one that says there is no exclusive truth. Good sir, your foot has just been shot through with your very own pistol!

Now, let me explain what I mean when I refer to this offensive idea of tolerance. French Canadian biblical scholar DA Carson argues in his book “The Gagging of God,” that there are two ways that we can view tolerance. The modernist way says this: “I believe you are wrong, ignorant and a bigot (and here is why…), but I will defend to the death your right to be wrong.” The modernist is tolerant of the individual, and vigorously elitist regarding truth. A shift has occurred, however, in what we assume tolerance to be. As our culture’s view of epistemology has changed, so too has our view of what it means to be a tolerant person.

To be tolerant today means to refuse to ever say that someone is wrong. In the post-modern version of tolerance, you are tolerant not of individuals, but of all views – except that view which disagrees with your concept of tolerance. In this case, the individual who disagrees with your view of tolerance is intolerant, and not to be tolerated. Feel free to disagree with me on what I believe to be the new tolerance, but please, realize the implications of your disagreement.

Take a deep breath.

Now, aside from the rampant inconsistencies in what I’ve described as post-modern tolerance, where does this leave us? The question is, are we going to tolerate tolerance? Is it permissible to be intellectually honest and admit that we all hold exclusive beliefs? Are we strong enough to tolerate individuals and be elitist regarding beliefs? Are we strong enough to engage in rigorous debate, disagree until we are blue in the face, and then go for a pint?

Last week, Pride and UCM held an event that raised many questions about what tolerance ought to look like in our society. Many in the room seemed to think that this kind of tolerance—the one which accepts individuals while rejecting their beliefs—was unacceptable. The problem in that, however, is that by deciding that it is not permissible to hold to traditional Christian beliefs regarding sexuality, one is necessarily deciding for the other what is true – sounds pretty exclusive.

In this case, the tolerance prescribed for Christians requires that they reject their own beliefs regarding sexuality in favor of accepting anothers.

Perhaps, instead of requiring that we leave our beliefs at the doorstep, we would all be better served if we brought them in. Only then can we meaningfully engage with each other as individuals who acknowledge the consequences of our beliefs, and the value of each other. To be in real community, we must engage both individuals and beliefs. One view of tolerance allows for this, while the other will engage the individual only once they’ve sufficiently altered their beliefs.

Take your pick.

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  1. Jonathan Hall

    October 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    I agree with your statements regarding the problems with the postmodern idea of tolerance. Not only has there been a redefinition of “tolerance” in our society, but also in the concept of what it means to “hate” another person. Nowadays, expressing the belief that another individual or their lifestyle is wrong is considered “hate speech”, at least with regards to certain groups and issues. I don’t deny that it is possible to speak hatefully about another individual or group of people through personal attacks, racist remarks, etc. However, why does speaking up for one’s beliefs about the morality of certain actions, lifestyles, or behaviour automatically constitute “hatred” of those people who engage in them? Can’t we believe (and say) that someone is wrong without having a personal hatred of them? In fact, if we truly believe that something is wrong, wouldn’t it be unloving never to say so?

  2. Alex W

    November 22, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    Telling someone that their LGBTQI identity is wrong or immoral is considered “hate speech” for the same reason telling someone that their African American or First Nations identity is wrong or immoral. The disagreement we have on this issue stems from the persistent idea that a non-heterosexual identity is something that could be resisted or “corrected”. If we all understood sexual preference as something as ingrained and unalterable as race, we would not consider it a moral issue.

  3. Jonathan Hall

    November 22, 2012 at 9:25 pm


    You’re making the assumption that “sexual preference” is “ingrained and unalterable”, but I believe that’s completely inaccurate. What you call a “identity” is in fact a behaviour that you can choose to engage in or not to engage in. Homosexuals can in fact “become” heterosexual, and vice versa. Trying to draw a parallel between that and ethnicity or “race” is nice rhetoric, but it doesn’t make any logical sense.

    It’s entirely possible that some individuals have a tendency toward homosexuality. In fact, I believe that the Bible has the answers as to why that is. Yet the tendency towards some activity is no grounds for justifying that activity or placing it outside of the purview of moral standards.

    I’m sure there are people who could argue (and even prove) that they have tendencies toward some form of criminal behaviour, and it may even be difficult for them to resist participating in it. However, I have a hard time believing that this argument should be sufficient for them to get away with whatever they want. They would still be expected to desist from that activity or else face punishment; the laws of the land would not be rewritten to accommodate their inclinations toward theft, murder, rape, or whatever the particular crime may be.

    Similarly, advocates of homosexual lifestyles can try to redefine morality to accommodate their actions and lifestyle, but that doesn’t change the actual standard of right and wrong.

  4. Beau O'Neill

    November 24, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Hi Jonathan,

    As an advocate of sense, and the freedom of individuals, I should point out that your argument is based on a fundamentally ignorant and fallacious ground. You speak of an “actual standard of right and wrong”, as if we, those who disagree with your bigotry and do not condone it, agree with you on this hugely important point, the point that we are in fact disagreeing on, which you can’t even see, because of your fundamentally bigoted nature…
    Do not talk about criminals. That comparison shows me and any other readers the ignorant and maleducated place from which you come.
    It will be nothing more than an exercise in mental exhaustion to continue this conversation with you over the internet. I feel sorry for people in your position, I feel, in a tangible way, one of the obstacles that is preventing our nation’s community from advancing socially. Until we are rid of the corruption that has putrified the supple young minds the likes of which yours once was, until we know everyone will accept all others who act naturally and do not harm or infringe upon the rights of others in any way, as even your misinformed vision of God would, until we are free of all yokes upon our reasoning, will we all be able to live happily.

  5. Jonathan Hall

    November 25, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    Hi Beau,

    First, I don’t think that my comment implied that you agree with me on the existence of an absolute standard of morality. I am well aware that many who take your position on these issues would deny that such a standard exists. However, I believe that there is one universal moral standard, and, being absolute, it is not dependent on your belief in its existence.

    Second, your comment contradicts your purported disbelief in an “actual standard of right and wrong”. Phrases such as “fundamentally ignorant and fallacious”, “fundamentally bigoted”, “ignorant and maleducated”, “corruption that has putrified”, and “misinformed” all imply moral judgements. I would suggest that you do in fact believe in right and wrong, and you must think that your view of wrong applies to me too; otherwise, you would have no basis for making these judgements of my remarks. Perhaps the real difference between your belief and mine on this issue is whose universal moral standard we believe in, not whether such a standard exists.

    I believe that God, the Creator of the universe, has defined right and wrong through His revealed will found in the Bible, and that we do not have the right to redefine morality according to our own liking. I’m not trying to to elevate myself as one who has achieved some higher degree of morality through what I do or don’t do; I have failed many times in many areas as well. Rather, I want to uphold God’s law as the only true and universal standard of right and wrong (regardless of whether you acknowledge it as such) and tell of the message of hope for those who, like me, are guilty of violating that perfect standard: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” (John 5:24).

  6. Alex Watkins

    December 4, 2012 at 12:38 am


    While a particular, singular sex act might rightly be defined as a behavior, sexuality in itself is not – it is perhaps outwardly demonstrated through behaviors, but it is not in itself a behavior. Refraining from having sexual and/or romantic relationships with people of the same sex does not make you heterosexual anymore than choosing to abstain from sex in general makes you asexual.

    Furthermore, there is absolutely no conclusive scientific evidence that “therapy” meant to alter a person’s sexuality is effective. I don’t know what information you are basing this argument on. Anecdotal evidence?

    I would also like to add that the likening of homosexuality to “tendencies toward some form of criminal behaviour” for the purposes of your argument is deeply offensive. Homosexuality is not criminal, nor is it in any way similar to criminality. Criminal behavior is punished regardless of (though sometimes with respect to in its severity) the offender’s possible predisposition to have done such a thing because we all agree that criminal behavior is harmful to others and thus unacceptable. Two people of the same sex (or people who are trans*, for that matter) having a relationship is not harmful to anybody and thus homosexuality has nothing to do with your argument about law enforcement.

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