The virtues of freedom: Tolerance

A year ago, as some TV report blathered on about gay marriage, my sister-in-law shrugged her shoulders and said, “Oh well.  To each his own.”  I thought it over, then decided, “You don’t believe that.”  When she asked what I meant, her husband, laughing, asked:  “How about polygamy?”

The Europeans consider themselves to be extremely open-minded, particularly when compared with us brutish Yanks.  Yet in 2004 they barred a Catholic Italian from becoming EU Justice Commissioner, because his views on homosexuality were, well, too Catholic.

Last year the Dutch started showing potential immigrants a video of two men kissing in a park, just so newcomers would know what the country values.  One doesn’t have to believe that Europe is in the grip of “secularist zeal” to grasp that something other than tolerance is at work here.

This is the latest in a series of post on the virtues required to sustain liberal democracy, American-style.  For those who wonder, I have discussed the relation between right behavior and freedom elsewhere.  Here I’ll tackle tolerance, surely the most misunderstood virtue of all.

Tolerance today is defined as nonjudgmentalism, particularly in moral matters.  Any attempt to pass moral judgments on others is met with fierce intolerance, as the case of the EU Commissioner demonstrates.  So defined, however, tolerance in truth becomes indifference, a lack of interest in the shared ends of the community, and the shared means evolved through history to achieve them.

It is difficult to say in what sense tolerance can be described as a virtue, if the tolerant don’t give a hoot about shared rules of behavior.

This idea of Olympian indifference to the rules is a postmodernist daydream, alien to human nature.  Everyone gives a hoot about something.  One may accept gay marriage, but not polygamy; abortion, but not the death penalty.  Most of these moral judgments aren’t a matter of personal expression:  they are shared.  Nor are they individually arrived at, deduced from some sociomathematical formula:  they are given to us by history.  In every society, no matter how liberal, the field of accepted behavior is bounded.  Beyond the boundary lie chaos and eternal night.

Tolerance is free play within the bounded field of morality.

The tolerant man understands both the boundedness and the freedom inherent to morality.   He knows that there’s more than one path to salvation, and he will defend those whose life direction contradict his own, so long as they dwell within the boundaries.

The tolerant man must have his own strong beliefs, his own moral community, his own path to salvation.  His tolerance can be said to be a virtue only to the degree that a difference plainly exists between him and his neighbor, that he feels this difference keenly, and that he’s still willing to defend it.  An Orthodox Jew who defends the right of a devout Catholic to his beliefs and traditions (and viceversa) exercises the kind of tolerance that keeps liberal democracy alive.

The tolerant man knows that obscurity and confusion lurk at the edges of the field of morality.   Because he’s not indifferent, he makes every effort to prevent his friends and neighbors from straying into the dark.  If the temptation is drink, he’ll intervene.  If the temptation is another man’s wife, he’ll persuade.  If his friend stumbles, he’ll forgive and try to raise him up.

But the tolerant man rejects false pride:  he also welcomes the intervention and persuasion of his friends when he strays, and their forgiveness when he stumbles.

Morality isn’t a competitive sport.  Virtue isn’t money to be hoarded, miser-like.  Tolerance is modesty:  the tolerant man can understand and forgive the errors of others because he isn’t puffed up in his own goodness.  Tolerance is kindness:  the tolerant man can sometimes overlook the failings of his friends because he can sense their misery and anguish.  Tolerance is politeness:  the tolerant man knows that, no matter how much he dislikes another person, all deserve to be treated alike.

Tolerance is humor:  the tolerant man laughs at all petty bigotries, including his own.  But he lacks irony:  his humor plays it straight up, and flows from the perspective of a participant in the moral drama, rather than that of a disdainful and uninvolved observer.

By all this, he expands the circle of freedom.  He allows behaviors formerly banned to be tried and tested.  He extends moral citizenship to those who have been disinherited by power:  serfs, helots, slaves.  He is not nonjudgmental.  He judges constantly, but only the content of people’s characters — not the color of their skins, or the strangeness of their accents, or the cut of their clothes, or their ugliness or beauty, or their wealth or poverty.

The tolerant man will condemn vicious or malicious moral transgressions, and his condemnation will ring the louder because it is uttered so seldom.

This weekend we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King.  His struggle to liberate blacks was epic but, given his own background, natural.  Far more extraordinary to me was the tolerance he showed toward his oppressors.  In front of the Lincoln Memorial, not far from where I live, he said:

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

That is the tolerant man in action.  He knows he cannot walk alone, and behaves accordingly.

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