Tolerance or a Contest of Power?
How todays ‘tolerance’ has become repressive.
By Peter Corney
The Catholic Archbishop of Hobart has recently been taken to Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commission for distributing a pastoral letter on the doctrine of marriage to the church's members! The complainant also seeks to have all church schools forced to promote LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) awareness, tolerance and behaviour. This is a misguided, repressive use of the law and a suppression of free speech and freedom of religion.
As well as the many serious concerns this raises about our democratic values, it also highlights the unsatisfactory drafting of our anti-discrimination laws that generally are far too broad and do not have sufficient protection of freedom of speech.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct an intelligent, reasoned, respectful and open public debate on issues of values, morality, ethics and religion without fear of legal action and the resulting suppression of free speech.
Behind this repressive and dangerous atmosphere lies a radical change in the way we understand tolerance and intolerance.
The traditional or liberal view of tolerance is based on the following two key ideas which can be expressed in the following way: (1) it has an egalitarian view of people. Every person is equal and has an equal right to their views and beliefs and a right to express them respectfully. (2) It has an elitist view of ideas. Not all ideas, views and beliefs are equally valid or sensible, some are true, some are false, some are just, some are unjust, some are dangerous and some are just plain silly. So while everyone has a right to speak not all views and beliefs are right. This is what we might call ‘principled tolerance.’
The current view of tolerance and intolerance turns this on its head. (1) It has an egalitarian view of ideas and beliefs. All ideas, views and beliefs are equally valid (a relativist view) and therefore should not be critiqued. (2) It has an elitist view of persons. Only persons with this relativist view about ideas have a right to speak in the public forum. All others with a different understanding about ideas and truth and who wish to contest people’s views and critique them, no matter how respectfully, may not speak! If they do they will be branded intolerant and discriminatory.
There is also another more sinister force at work here. Some lobby groups have worked out this change that has taken place in people’s view of tolerance and intolerance and exploit it very skilfully in the media and public forums to suppress criticism and reasoned argument about the particular ideas they are promoting. Many in the media are easily drawn into this strategy. For a diverse society sensitive to any ethnic, religious or cultural divisions that might create disharmony or public disorder this sensitivity is a very easy but cynical button to press for strategic campaign reasons.
The new view of tolerance and intolerance owes a great deal to Post Modern thinking and its anti- foundationalism and rejection of objective truth which has reinforced the relativist position. The English philosopher Roger Scruton has a very apt and ironic comment on this trend in contemporary thought; the very reasoning that sets out to destroy ideas of objective truth and absolute value imposes a political correctness as absolutely binding and a cultural relativism as ‘objectively true’
In the end all this leads to the death of the contest of ideas and the emergence of our very destructive default position, the contest of power. In the battle of “the will to power” eventually one side imposes by force their will on the other by unethically suppressing their right to dissent by either ridicule and closing down discussion or by the force of laws like our current anti vilification legislation that while well intended were poorly drafted and while never intended to restrict the right of free speech can be used to do just that. This ‘violence’ to the other is the beginning of the destruction of our liberal society.