What’s Wrong With “Tolerance?”

One of the Left’s most frequent demands is for “tolerance.” It is a popular demand, because most people, myself included, think tolerance broadly a public good. Like anything, it can be carried to excess. One ought not, for example, tolerate boom boxes blasting barbaric music in public places. After all, we don’t force them to listen to Haydn.

Conservatives like tolerance because it helps create a climate of public order and harmony. In intolerant societies, such as Europe during the Reformation, people are quickly at each other’s throats. Conservatives do not like that, especially when it leads to murder, war, arson, destruction of historic art works and the like. During a tour of the Swedish military archives, I was handed a muster list dated 1642. The archivist said, “Turn it over.” On the other side was an illuminated medieval manuscript. The archivist commented, “Most such manuscripts ended up being used for cannon wads. It was the Reformation.”

Regrettably, with “tolerance” as with so many words, the culturally Marxist Left (now almost all of it) is playing tricks. The first, which I noted in an earlier column, is deliberately confusing tolerance with approval. This is most common with reference to “gay liberation.” The Left demands gays be tolerated, which, as with many differences, is the best solution (the old Victorian rule, “Don’t frighten the horses,” facilitates tolerance on both sides). But though they use the word “tolerance,” what they actually demand is approval, which is a very different thing. No Christian can approve sin of any kind; doing so is yet a greater sin, being a sin of the spirit not just the flesh.

So different are tolerance and approval that they are functional opposites. I only need to tolerate things I disapprove. Approval trumps toleration, as a higher degree of positive response (tolerance can be mildly positive or quite negative, in terms of the judgment it subordinates). In turn, to tolerate something I approve makes no sense, because I have no need to do so. I tolerate eating broccoli, but I have no need to tolerate eating an eclair, since I do so with enthusiasm.

By saying “tolerance” when they mean “approval,” the Left plays a game of bait and switch. The goal is to brand anyone who disapproves of sin—almost any sin, it seems—a “bigot.” Perhaps we should respond by remembering the medieval reference to “saints, martyrs, and bigots,” a bigot being someone who cleaves to the truth regardless of how hard he is pressed to abandon it. In the cultural Marxists’ usage, “bigot” is re-acquiring its old meaning.

Cultural Marxism plays a second trick with the world “tolerance,” one that reaches into almost everything it does or advocates. When cultural Marxists demand “tolerance,” what they really mean, in coded speech understood by other cultural Marxists, is “liberating tolerance.” Herbert Marcuse, a member of the Frankfurt School and perhaps the cultural Marxists leading voice in the 1960s, wrote a famous essay with that title. In it, he defined “liberating tolerance” as tolerance for all ideas and movements emanating from the Left, and intolerance for all ideas and movements coming from the right. In other words, when cultural Marxists demand “tolerance,” they are really calling for intolerance toward conservatives and their beliefs.

We see this most clearly on college campuses, where cultural Marxism is most powerful. Students who, for example, show disapproval of homosexuality, or question whether all races or ethnic groups are identical and interchangeable, are often hauled up before some kangaroo court and threatened with discipline, either reading a forced “apology” to whatever politically correct “victim” group they have “offended”–shades of North Korea—or being expelled. In contrast, no one who advocates from a leftist basis, no matter how extreme—as, for example, justifying killing cops—is ever so threatened. That is Marcuse’s “liberating tolerance” at work.

The intellectual dishonesty here is blatant. That cultural Marxists use a common word with a broadly understood meaning, but give it their own coded meaning, which is directly opposite what is commonly understood. It is straight from Orwell: war is peace, hate is love, intolerance of conservatives is tolerance. What cultural Marxists now do on campuses, they hope to do nationwide. Any expression of conservative ideas will be punishable, and the policy will be called “tolerance.” Words themselves can lie.

Conservatives should expose cultural Marxism’s lies embedded in words, and explain its tricks to the wider world. We should also reaffirm the benefits of true tolerance, tolerance as practiced in two of my favorite traditional societies, old England and Prussia. Both were famous for their broad toleration of eccentrics, and both benefited from it. At one point in the 1880s, General Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff, ordered the organization to go out and recruit the oddballs and the eccentrics, on the grounds that they usually have the best ideas. That is still true, especially of us eccentrics on the traditional right.