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Rebuilding a Tolerant Society (and How One Arose)

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The Erosion of Toleration

There is an obvious, dispiriting, and ultimately dangerous erosion of toleration spreading in both the United States, and the wider western world.  We see this in increasing calls for the restriction of free speech rights from people in positions of authority.  The FDA wants to restrict your speech.  The so-called Twitter Files show how the government pressured social media to tow the government line and minimize critics of US policy.  A handful of insignificant mistakes by the reporter of the Twitter Files, Matt Taibbi, has stunningly led to calls from a US representative to have Taibbi prosecuted for perjury.  Even more stunningly pseudoprogressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for the outright banning of Fox News.

Then there is the revelation that the Biden campaign enlisted a former CIA employee to get his national security buddies to go public, right before the 2020 election, with the lie that the Hunter Biden laptop story was Russian disinformation.  Now as President, Biden is seeking to prosecute US citizens for “sowing discord”, and not being sufficiently compliant toward US war policy in Ukraine.  Then there is the odious RESTRICT Act that is being proposed which would give the federal government arbitrary control over most internet speech.  The  continuing persecution of Julian Assange also sticks out as uniquely intolerant.  These are only the tip of the iceberg, but you get a sense of the clear threat to the toleration of differing points of view that are percolating within the corridors of power.

Then there is the moral panic on the right over trans people and the LGBTQIA+ community in general.  Drag Queens and those seeking medical treatment for gender dysphoria are being singled out for intolerant treatment, mostly at the state level.  On the left there is the moral panic about sex workers, which has made their lives more dangerous while at the same time intolerantly stripping them of moral agency and infantilizing them.  There is also the restrictions put upon people’s livelihoods due to occupational licensing, not to mention zoning restrictions that create intolerance for diverse living arrangements.

This phenomenon is not limited to the US, as Europe is in the grip of an intolerant moment.  France is but one example, Britain is also a leader in the intolerance race to the bottom.  Both overseas and in the US this is a phenomenon that is bipartisan in nature, depending on the issue under discussion.  In some fashion or other, it seems (I’ll argue against in a bit) that everyone is opposed to toleration.  If successful all this will make the West look like those “other” countries that everyone likes to criticize.

A Brief History of Toleration

It was not always thus.  Not that toleration is the norm, it has not been throughout most of history.  It is as intermittent as economic freedom.  Hey, is that a connection I spy?  Nonetheless, there have been moments, particularly in the history of Western civilization that have seen periods of toleration.

The democracies of Greece come to mind.  The very idea that there could be rule by a group of free men (and I do mean free and men) was stunningly radical.  It did not last but it did create a flourishing of Greek civilization in no small part because of the toleration of differing viewpoints that was protected.  There was a limit to this toleration, as Socrates discovered, but the ethos of the Greek idea was formational to the broader Western mindset.

Then there was Rome, which itself owed so much to Greek culture.  Rome was for its day, a remarkably tolerant culture.  As long as you paid your tax to the state and did not freelance your own foreign policy, Rome mostly left you alone.  As for religious toleration you could worship any god you wished as long as you paid some homage to the emperor on state feast days.  This usually posed little problem for pagans.  Obviously this posed a problem for the Jews.  Yet even here Rome gave the Jews a pass and allowed them to not pay homage to any but their God.  There were persecutions from time to time, particularly of the Christians, but by then the ethos of early Rome had devolved into an explicit military dictatorship.  Sadly, when Christianity became the official religion of the state, the formerly persecuted Christians turned around and persecuted the remaining pagans, and often the Jews themselves.  But by then Rome was on the clock and had little time remaining as an extant empire.

Then came Islam.  It too was remarkably tolerant for its time.  If you were not Muslim you had to pay a tax, which served as an incentive to convert.  Yet, if you did not convert you paid the tax, which was no higher than the Byzantine empire collected, and you were free to worship as you pleased.  This was more tolerant than the Byzantine empire which persecuted what they as Christians considered heresy.  Islam too devolved into a rather intolerant society under the pressure of the Crusades from the west and the Mongol invasions from the east.  Yet in its day it added to the historical tradition of toleration in the western world.

Toleration rose in more modern times in the west not primarily because of some newfound ideological commitment to nonviolence against those different.  It rose I would argue because of sheer exhaustion.  Prior to the Reformation there was the monolithic Catholic church, so there was relatively little need to stifle dissent (although that did occur).  In the wake of the Reformation, however, things got bloody quickly.  The next 150 years after Luther nailed his thesis to the church door in Wittenberg, saw violent wars of religion amongst most of the major powers of Europe.  There was certainly a good dose of geopolitics involved but the religious differences sparked these wars and made the violence burn ever more intensely. 

In the end a philosophy emerged known as Cuius regio, eius religio, which literally means “whose realm, whose religion”.  It came to pass that the religion of the king was the religion of the country.  This is not the kind of toleration that we would want, but it was a major step forward in the battle for toleration.  It tamped down the wars of religion, and the absence of war always makes it easier to extend toleration outward.  In time, it became easier to allow for dissent within nations as well as among nations.  The writings of John Locke came to embody much of what we understand of toleration in the western world.

All of this was helped by the fractured nature of European political entities.  There was no continent-wide empire after Rome, so the competing states helped to fracture political and economic culture and make the rise of tolerance easier.  This is one of the key reasons why the West grew wealthy.  Yet, I would still argue that the key reason for the rise of toleration was moral, political, and economic exhaustion.

Toward A New Toleration

So, the question arises, are we exhausted enough to renew our commitment to toleration?  I hope so, because 150 years of war in a world bristling with nuclear weapons is not likely to survive.  First, we must admit our exhaustion.  The west is morally, spiritually, and economically exhausted.  If there is no renewal the west will wind up like all the other civilizations that rose due to relative tolerance and fell because they abandoned it.  In admitting our exhaustion, we should understand what our forebearers discovered; that if you want to receive toleration, you must grant toleration.

So, how does that happen?  We can start by focusing on the vast majority of people who are not massively online, and hyper politicized.  Consider the prime-time cable news shows, and the viewers they attract.  Overall, all the three main cable news channels average about 4.9 million viewers per night.  This means in a nation of 335 or so million people, 330 million or 98% are not tuning in to these shit shows.

We should also focus on the way most of us live our lives.  We go out, work, play, shop, and care for our families.  We worry about our children needing braces and how well they are doing in school.  Most of us have precious little time for the political shenanigans going on in the policy world.  When we do these things, we do not stop to wonder what the politics of the clerk handling our transactions are, nor do we care about their sexual orientation.  We inhabit the world of the double thank you.  We are glad that people are available to do business with, and don’t give a second thought to the different ways they may be living their lives.  This is what we need to remember, because these are the associations that make life pleasant, productive, and enriching.

If we focus on this world of voluntary interactions, we can start to move toward a realization that it is the interference of politics that generates the win/loss, gouge your eyes out world of intolerance.  Reducing the role of winner take all government control by radically reducing the role of the state in our lives will enhance the prospects for increasing toleration, and therefore peace and prosperity.

No one is saying you can’t live whatever lifestyle you wish if it is nonviolent.  You can be as radically libertine or as reactionarily traditionalist as you care to be.  You simply need to remember that to get tolerance for your life, you must grant it to others.  However, it should help to remember that social toleration does not equal moral acceptance, it is, of course, your right to dissent peacefully and nonviolently.

We as a faith community should be the ones leading this effort.  The recovery from the awful wars of religion is part and parcel to our faith history, and one that we should not forget.  As in all things we should look to Jesus as our exemplar and the template for our lives.  In response to the gifts of grace upon grace that God has given us through Jesus the Christ we should live as He did, as best we can.  This means being tolerant.  Jesus never went after anyone who lived a different way, or who espoused different ideas, or who may have rejected His message.  He accepted people’s choices to go their own way.  He certainly grieved over those who rejected a relationship with God, but He never acted intolerantly toward their right to do so.  How can we do any less?  So let us relearn to live and let live and forge the kind of tolerant society in which all God’s children can live peacefully.

Praise Be to God

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