Tolerance: An Evolving Notion

For our DECODE section in Salvo 10, we took our readers on a little tour of the notion of tolerance over the past few hundred years. Derived from the Latin tolerantia, we pointed out that “tolerance” originally meant “putting up with something that is undesirable.” We continued:

Consequently, inherent in its origins is the notion that the tolerant individual believes that his beliefs, practices, and behaviors are superior to those that he tolerates—that he has graciously refrained from deporting, imprisoning, executing, or otherwise humiliating those whose beliefs, practices, and behaviors are inferior to his own.

That was then. Enter relativism.

It’s not surprising, then, that with the emergence of moral relativism in the early 20th century—and, later, the American political radicalism of the 1960s—came an intolerance of tolerance as it was originally defined. In other words, the idea that some people were merely tolerating the beliefs and actions of others was unacceptable in light of the “fact” that all beliefs and actions were equally legitimate. To remedy this situation, tolerance itself was reconceived as a rejection of moral absolutes in favor of an ethical framework that respected all viewpoints, no matter how ludicrous. Of course, the one viewpoint excluded from this scheme was that which opposed its central premise.

The reason I’m dragging this up from our archives today is because not too long ago I had the chance to see this type of neo-tolerance (which is not tolerance at all) in action when I was writing an article about the challenges Christians are facing in France.

Prior to the revolution, late 18th century France had been the most tolerant society in all of Europe. Tolerance was understood as allowing or permitting another person’s viewpoint or values in spite of how one personally felt. Though this notion of tolerance, like any type of liberty, has obvious legal limits, it was based on the Biblical idea (not always perfectly followed by Christian societies) that we should refrain from deporting, imprisoning, executing or humiliating those whose beliefs, practices and behaviours are inferior to one’s own.

Tolerance in this sense did not suggest an acceptance of that which was being tolerated, but connoted the idea of allowing something in spite of how one actually felt about it, as embodied in the quotation falsely attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

During the revolution’s reign of terror, all tolerance came to a sudden end. Revolutionary thought police began enforcing what we now call ‘political correctness.’ The guillotine was used to vigorously suppress any opinion or expression which contravened the anti-Christian values of the revolution.

Undergirded by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the French revolution represented a concerted and deliberate attempt to dechristianize the nation, including

  • The implementation of a new calendar to replace the Christian one. The calendar, which was adopted in 1793 and used for the next 12 years, employed a ten day week (in a 10 day week, no one could ever know which day was Sunday) and had 1792 (the year Louis XVI was taken into custody) as year 1. This was known as ‘the year of liberty.’
  • The dispossession, deportation and brutal martyrdom of thousands of clergy
  • Christians being denied freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of thought if it contravened the secular humanist ideology of the revolution.
  • The criminalization of all religious education
  • The elimination of all Christian symbols from the public sphere, including removing the word ‘saint’ from street names and destroying or defacing churches and religious monuments
  • The replacing of Christian holidays and symbols with civic and revolutionary cults like the ‘Cult of Reason’ and ‘Cult of the Supreme Being.’ A statue to the goddess Reason was even erected and worshiped in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November 1793.

No one would try to claim that these de-Christianization policies of revolutionary France were tolerant. That is because they still generally worked under the classical notion of tolerance. Thus, we find Robespierre and other members of the revolutionary ‘committee of public safety’ defending intolerance as a good thing.

Around the middle of the last century, France experienced the metamorphoses in the notion of tolerance that we described in our DECODE article. Tolerance gradually ceased to be understood in the original sense as permitting that which one did not personally accept. Instead, it began to mean actually accepting ideas, values and practices that differed from one’s own. Whereas under the old notion of tolerance a Frenchman had to disagree with someone in order to tolerate, allow or put up with the different viewpoint, the new meaning of tolerance does not allow for such disagreement; rather, it asserts that a person must actually accept all values and viewpoint as being equally legitimate (the obvious exception is that we are not supposed to tolerate the older notion of tolerance, since the older notion assumed what is now an allegedly intolerant antithesis.)

This paradigm shift in the notion of tolerance has had far reaching implications for Christians living in France. Since it is now an act of intolerance to call anything wrong or immoral, those who hold to traditional standards of morality are constantly finding themselves accused of intolerance. The result was described succinctly by Janey DeMeo, former missionary in France of 22 years and author of Heaven Help Me Raise These Children!: “They tolerate everything — except Christians. Unless you have actually lived in France, it is hard to understand just how challenging this can be.” (I give some specific example of this in my article, ‘Persecution of Christians in France.’)

Herbert Marcuse

But how did these new notions of tolerance come to America? Anyone who has read my recent article on Herbert Marcuse will know that this guru of the counter-culture had a lot to do with it. The place where Marcuse developed his theories about tolerance was in a 1965 essay titled ‘Repressive Tolerance’ which can be read online here. Under Marcuse, the word tolerant became an analogue for censorship and rigid restrictions on intellectual freedom, especially the freedom to express conservative or Christian ideas. Daniel Flynn summed it up the jest of it in his book Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas.

Tolerating what you like and censoring what you don’t like, of course, had a name before Marcuse came along. It was called intolerance. Intolerance had an unpopular ring to it, so Marcuse called it by its more popular antonym, tolerance. This word was often modified by liberating, discriminating, and true. Further corruption of language came via his criticism of practitioners of free speech as “intolerant.”

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