We live in an age where virtues have become vices, and vices have become virtues. What most societies shuttered at just decades ago is now paraded and promoted, especially by popular culture. And the old virtues, like faithfulness in marriage, truth-telling, humility and concern for others, are now mocked and derided as hopelessly out of date.
The old virtues have all but disappeared. But there is one “virtue” that has risen to the top of the charts. There is one word that is heard constantly and incessantly: “tolerance”. We are to tolerate everyone and everything. All points of view and all lifestyles are to be tolerated.
Yet as this revealing study makes clear, the modern notion of tolerance is far removed from what it traditionally has always meant. The recent concept of tolerance is a perversion of its former self, being the polar opposite to its original meaning.
Today we have managed to turn tolerance into a virtue or a doctrine. It used to be a practice or a habit. It used to be based on the way we treated one another. Today it is an ism promoted by the state for its own ends. It used to be seen as a means to an end. Today it is treated as an end in itself.
In the past, you tolerated someone, treated them with respect, even though you might violently disagree with their beliefs or their lifestyle. Today, to tolerate someone means you must also embrace their philosophy, their worldview, their lifestyle. That is a big difference.
In this historical and philosophical inquiry, Conyers examines how the concept of tolerance has changed over the last few centuries. He argues that its redefinition emerged at the same time as the modern nation state arose. He argues that there is a connection between the rise of the centralization of power in the modern state, and this redefinition of tolerance.
The modern idea of tolerance first arose in the seventeenth century. He argues that two parallel developments, the rise of the nation state, and emergence of the isolated individual, served as a backdrop to the changing concept of tolerance. As mediating institutions like the church and family began to wane, increasingly isolated and fragmented individuals had to be kept in check by growing state bureaucracies. Indeed, a pressing question for thinkers of this time was, how could a mass of individuals be controlled, when former social glues like religion and community were in decline?
Natural groups like the family and other associations are easily contained. But unnatural groups, like the organised state, need other means to achieve social harmony and conflict resolution. How can individuals live together in peace when natural groupings break down? The state, in order to reduce threats to its centralisation and control, had produced a concept of toleration which minimised absolutes, sought to water down religious and moral conviction, and promoted a fuzzy egalitarianism.
Thus questions of ultimate meaning are settled, not by religion or morality, but by the state. The state maintains power by subsuming to itself powers formerly held by family, religion and the church. Mediating structures between the individual and the state were seen as threats, and the philosophical understanding of tolerance changed to accommodate the centralizing powers of the state.
That is why those who today argue that family does not mean any and all types of relationships, or those who proclaim that the Christian message is exclusive and absolutely true, are seen as such a threat by the state and its supporters. A watered down religion, and an amorphous definition of family, are acceptable in today’s climate, but an insistence on truth and absolutes is not. Thus relativism rules.
Conyers looks at how modern thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke altered our understanding of tolerance, to make it serve the interests of the rising state powers. He argues that we need to return to the earlier, Christian understanding of tolerance. That understanding was based on humility, not indifference.
Indeed, the modern attempt to disavow absolutes and certainty have made matters worse, not better. Our times are characterised by doubt, fear and distrust. The old verities and certainties have been jettisoned for a hodge-podge of multiculturalism, relativism and apathy. In an age of uncertainty, people continue to look for assurance and direction. The state cannot provide this. All it can offer is bread and circuses. But even these are not enough. Thus the persistence of marriage and family and credal religion.
The modern promoters of secularism and tolerance may have won in the halls of power and influence (academia, the media, etc.), but the common person looks for something more sure. A notion of tolerance that waters down all convictions, that squashes dissent, and preaches relativism, is not going to satisfy.
Says Conyers, the early Judeo-Christian understanding of tolerance is preferred. Strong conviction, based on eternal verities, coupled with humility and love, is the right sort of tolerance. Indeed, he argues that the right sort of tolerance is necessarily a theological one. “It concerns whether and how men and women shall proceed to deal with the ultimate questions of the meaning and purpose of human existence when these issues so strongly divide us. The modern strategy, called toleration, is to postpone or divert those questions and to attend instead to other questions – to think about means rather than ends.”
The modern doctrine of toleration promotes isolation, but the practice of real toleration pushes us gently to community. Thus we need to reclaim the lost tradition of real tolerance. The modern hijacking of the concept has served the interests of those seeking economic and political power, but has not been a panacea to the struggling masses.