Sun | Jan 17, 2021

The intolerant view of tolerance

Published:Sunday | October 21, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Participants in the Love March for sexual purity making their way from Hope Gardens to Half-Way Tree on September 15. - File

Ian Boyne, Contributor

I am increasingly disturbed by a growing - indeed, galloping - intolerant view of tolerance. Tolerance is being subtly and manipulatively redefined as a mask for crass intolerance. Liberals are the main purveyors of this illiberal view. It is pernicious. And it must be called out.

An excellent demonstration of this new prejudice masquerading as sophisticated, enlightened thinking is atheistic social psychologist and gay rights advocate, Dr Keon West's piece in last Tuesday's Observer titled 'Out of Many, One People'. Keon, son of anti-gay, anti-abortionist fundamentalist Christian Dr Wayne West, is a Rhodes Scholar with an impeccable academic record.

West begins his article innocuously and captivatingly enough: "In June this year, I got married. One of my best men was Nawaz Ahmad. He is one of the kindest, wisest, most principled people I have ever met. Nawaz is a devout Muslim. I don't think Allah exists. Still our relationship is characterised by mutual respect and admiration ... . We appreciate each other's advice and respect the other's intelligence and morality. I think highly of his wife, who covers her hair. He thinks highly of my wife, who does not.

"I would vigorously oppose any law that prevented him from praying to Mecca or respecting Ramadan, as he would vigorously oppose any law that forced me to do so or prevented me from drinking alcohol." Lovely, touching story of friendship and respect, indeed.

West is telling us this story for a reason: "I say this to help you understand the sharp contrast between real love and respect and what happened on September 15, 2012, on the streets of out-of-many-one-people Jamaica. During this act with the Orwellian name 'Love March', a group of Christians demanded that the private sexual lives of all Jamaicans be subject to their religious prejudices and that our laws punish those who do not conform to their prejudices."

Notice the clever use of emotive words - "Orwellian", "prejudices". But, more important, note the massive leap in non-sequitur reasoning: If I really love and respect you, there is no way I could march against anything you embrace. So tolerance is redefined as public non-resistance to anything you, my respected friend, accepts.

So if I really love you as a Republican and respect you, there is no way I would participate in a march against your Republican ideas or demonstrate against your trickle-down economics. If you are a prostitute, I can't march against prostitution and love you.

Is democracy still alive?

On September 15, a group of conservative, fundamentalist Christians who are convinced by their reading of Scripture that homosexuality is sinful and morally degenerate came together to march against that. I had thought that was their democratic right. I thought that as citizens in a free society they had the right to demonstrate against something they found abhorrent - whether it is or not.

They peacefully demonstrated and spoke against homosexuality. Why is "real love and respect" counterpoised to that? This is the reasoning from a PhD from Oxford! He gives this mushy story about an atheist and a Muslim, parading himself as a paragon of civic virtue (tolerance) and contrasting his own enlightened, tolerant view with those of those bigots who were on the streets of Kingston acting out their prejudices against fellow Jamaicans.

West goes on to exhibit his intolerant and jaundiced view of tolerance: He is back to his friendship with Nawaz. Says West: "Nawaz believes some of my personal decisions are morally misguided; I think the same of some of his. But where we disagree we debate each other like rational, respectable adults. And if we fail to convince each other, the disagreement and the respect need not cancel out each other; friendship is not contingent on agreement."

I agree totally, but notice this other leap of logic from our Rhodes Scholar: "Neither of us would dream of marching to demonise the other's lifestyle, as though increased volume were an appropriate substitute for sound reason or good evidence."

West is not done: "Neither of us would be presumptuous enough to pretend that we 'loved the other too much to let him continue in his misguided ways'." We would see such a thinly veiled attempt at social control for what it was - arrogance and hostility." What? Notice the emotive words - "demonise", "presumptuous", "social control", "arrogance" and (it gets worse) "hostility".

Friends without opinions

According to the West Doctrine of Love and Respect, if you are his friend, you can't participate in any public march or demonstration against any lifestyle he embraces or against any ideology deeply held. That's demonising him, disrespecting him, being arrogant and, indeed, being hostile.

To be his true, respectful friend, you can debate him vigorously, but stay in your yard or on your verandas; don't you dare venture out to take your disagreement public. That's disloyal. That's demonising, unloving; indeed, hostile. Welcome to the new definition of tolerance! Philosopher John Locke must be turning in his grave - as must Sir Karl Popper, and those ancient philosophers who graced early Athens with their lively, contentious debates. Now debates must be private.

West, not satisfied with his previous leaps and non-sequitur turns, continues the intellectual gymnastics: "If you find it unbearable that other people do not agree with your world view, I feel sorry for you, because there's a lot of difference out there, and it's not going away." But West would certainly like the "prejudices", "arrogance" and public demonstrations of anti-gay activists to go away. No tolerance for such "homophobic" acts. That's what should be outlawed, Dr West would perhaps advise.

There are militant atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and John Loftus and that firebrand, the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens fervently believed - and other militant atheists fervently believe today - that their counterparts have been too passive and quiescent and have allowed too much religious bigotry and plain obscurantism to run wild. Religious ignorance and nonsense, say these militant atheists, have been allowed to run unchallenged by no-rock-the-boat atheists who have adopted a live-and-let-live approach.

But people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have contended in their books and public utterances that religion is not harmless or benign. It is downright dangerous, harmful to humans, especially children, and should be vigorously, strenuously opposed and campaigned against.

Why couldn't a Harris or Dawkins be a respectful friend of mine, my being a theist? I could well have as a friend a militant atheist who respects me and wonders every day how someone supposedly as bright as I am can be so foolish to believe in a god or a "contradiction-ridden", "morally problematic" book like the Bible. That atheist could love and respect me, but believe that for psychological reasons I hold on to religion and have allowed my heart to rule my head.

That does not mean that friend could not march to have prayers banned in Jamaican schools and at civic and parliamentary functions; march to ban devotions at public-sector offices; march to take Christ out of Christmas and replace it with just secular Xmas. Respecting me and loving me does not mean he can't lobby actively against my views. He might think my views on sexual morality are absolutely idiotic. He might lobby for prostitution and polygamy to be legalised - the very opposite of my ethical positions.

But my view of tolerance means that I respect his right to public advocacy against my views and even against what I hold as more precious than own life. (And there are some things that I personally believe are worth dying for.)

So this view that I can tolerate anything but the denial of my being (whether my sexuality or something else) is not a very tolerant one. Why should a Christian march in a free, democratic country to retain the buggery laws be deemed an act of hostility? These Christians believe homosexuality is an abomination, an evil punishable in eternal hellfire. They want to save homosexual sinners - some of whom are their friends - from that fate.

If it's okay to shout, "Fire! Fire!" to save some person genuinely threatened by fire, why if these persons believe that an eternal fire awaits those who engage in homosexual conduct, should they not peacefully demonstrate and draw attention to this consequence?

'Right' worth protecting

They might be misguided, blinded and foolish. But in a democracy, people have the right to be misguided, blinded and foolish! Or do people like Rhodes Scholar West believe that it is the duty of the intellectual elite to paternalistically force enlightenment on these noble savages?

Give people the right to their way-out, outdated, foolish views. You then enter the public domain and show up their silliness and stupidity. And doing that does not mean you disrespect them and don't love them. Tolerance does not mean our views converge. It means precisely that we really disagree substantially and fundamentally but, like Voltaire, we would defend your right to your views and we hold that right sacrosanct.

In some of my religious presentations, I criticise religious groups by name when I disagree with their theological doctrines. Many are deeply offended by this. Some never return to hear me again. They resent the fact that I call names of denominations which teach what I consider biblical errors. They say that's discourteous, rude, arrogant and intolerant.

But economists, political scientists, philosophers and biologists routinely criticise certain theories and even name academic colleagues who hold those views. And that is considered academic freedom and, indeed, academic rigour. Religious people and pro-gay activists, though, are deeply offended and easily rush for emotive language as a fig leaf to cover their intolerance and emotional immaturity.

West concludes his Observer piece in Manichaean terms: The struggle is not between gay and straight, he says. "It is being fought between mature adults who will treat each other with respect, despite their differences, and the bigots who will not." I agree, Keon, but who really is the bigot in this picture? I suspect my answer is as far from his as the East is from the West.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to and