The New Tolerance

Americans joyfully celebrate the holiday season in a variety of ways while tolerating one another’s religious and non-religious traditions. During the rest of the year, many Americans practice a new kind of tolerance that differs from the country’s historical roots.

History books recount the story of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. Williams wanted religious freedom. He is known and admired by many because he practiced tolerance and encouraged freedom in his colony. Williams is frequently quoted as saying, “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”  Thus, dissenters from prevailing religious views in the colony were tolerated, therein enjoying freedom of conscience to hold whatever views seemed right to them. But Williams’ tolerance didn’t earn him the same: He was condemned for his views and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Yet, a century later, the founding fathers enshrined Williams’ views of freedom and tolerance in the first clauses of the Bill of Rights.

As a result, freedom of religion, speech, the press and much more have been the bedrock of American society for more than two centuries—albeit not always without flaws in practice. The principle of tolerance—defined as the sense of having a fair and objective attitude towards others’ opinions, religious views or other practices—was rooted in these freedoms. However, the way the culture defines tolerance has changed dramatically in recent years.

Evidence of a new view of tolerance first appeared on my cultural radar a few years ago while I was visiting an old friend. In the midst of one of our frequent, spirited discussions about current political events, she insisted that I should be more tolerant of her views. I assured her that I always tried to exercise tolerance of others’ views and that such an attitude was essential to my scholarly life. “No! No! You are not tolerant!” she said forcefully. After a time of parsing and defining terms, it was clear that her use of tolerance did not mean the same thing as the time-honored, traditional meaning of the term. She was using an old word in a new way, practicing a kind of linguistic neo-orthodoxy.

And what exactly did she mean? Being tolerant, she insisted, meant that I had to agree with and accept her view as not only valid but equal to my view, even though it was contrary to mine. While the traditional definition of tolerance allowed individuals to hold whatever views they desired, this new definition tends to suppress freedom of expression altogether.  This newly defined idea of tolerance is recognized by many as the backbone of the “politically correct” movement.

In order to differentiate between these differing views of tolerance, it is time to give this linguistic innovation a name of its own. Perhaps, it should be called the “new tolerance.”

Is this discussion a mere semantic “tempest in a tea pot?” Not at all. It is, indeed, a very practical issue. Listen to discussions on education, politics, morality or foreign policy and what do you hear? Demands that you practice tolerance of all views. That is to say, you are morally wrong if you do not agree with that view.

Clearly, the “new tolerance” is gaining ground as an axiom in public policy, especially in education. Is that not what is occurring in the classroom when little children are forced to accept, by teachers and texts, homosexuality as a normal (read valid) life-style? And this even though the opposite view is being taught in most homes. In the future, the “new tolerance” may require that we ask what radical Islamists want. Are they not the ultimate or extreme practitioners of the “new tolerance?”

What is the effect of the “new tolerance” on the freedoms the founders fought for? How far is it from the “forced worship” that Roger Williams said “stinks in the nostrils of God?” Not very far, it seems to me. Stated another way, does not the “new tolerance” erode the basic freedoms the Bill of Rights was designed to guarantee? I think so, but then we are free to disagree—and that’s a freedom we should be thankful for this holiday season.