Charles Taylor: Defending Tolerance

I wrote a post a while back on an introduction to Charles Taylor, and immediately after finishing that post I put the book down for, uh, a month or so. But I picked it up again today, and now I’m back into it. Fair warning, this post isn’t really about Charles Taylor – he makes reference to this contemporary idea of tolerance, and something about the phrasing pulled seven or eight different threads out of the last week and spun them all together. So we’re gonna talk about that. Oh – and we’re a couple paragraphs larger than usual today. 

Really this is quite a preliminary essay – we’re dealing with like a cultural vibe, rather than one essay or argument, and so it’s going to be vague sort of by default. But here’s the basic idea: today our society does not tolerate intolerance. In Christian circles, this idea will often pop up when people are talking condescendingly about pluralism or multiculturalism or things like that. For me, it appeared in my introduction to Charles Taylor. Now, I’m not attacking Taylor directly, and I’m not necessarily attacking the author of the introduction either. That said, something about the phrasing of this extract got my hackles up.

So the author (James K. A. Smith) is describing these different ages that Taylor sets out. Apparently our current age is the Age of Authenticity, where choice is at a premium and tolerance is king: “the sin which is not tolerated is intolerance”. Smith writes that in earlier times, tolerance “was contained and surrounded by other values that were a scaffolding of formation (eg the citizen ethic). What erodes in the last half century is precisely these limits on individual fulfillment.” Again, I’m not responding to Taylor or Smith in the sense that I haven’t read Taylor’s original argument and so I might be mischaracterising Smith. But this so-called age of tolerance seems very overstated and also kinda condescending. I’ve never seen it employed by someone who wasn’t attacking tolerance as basically interfering with Christianity, and it just seems very narrow-minded.

So let’s examine the concept a little more closely. Supposedly this tolerance thing comes into play after the ’60s. For critics, tolerance means that everyone can have their own moral compass and everything’s relativistic and based on the individual and there’s no true overarching morality. It means we accept everything without question as long as it’s tethered to the dynamic of choice, and ultimately civilisation is deteriorating into a hyper-permissive degenerate fucking shambles. This is obviously a problem for Christians who see God as the great lawmaker setting out a bunch of objective moral imperatives. You can’t tolerate sin, they might say. You can’t pass off homosexuality or abortion as subjective moral choices that we have to accept in the name of tolerance. We’ll deal with that idea shortly, but first let’s step back and look at the big picture.

Are we really becoming hyper-permissive? Obviously there is a major societal shift going on over the last 50 years – we’re reorganising how we think about and talk about a bunch of different things. The standards for things are shifting, and yes, some things are becoming more socially acceptable. For example, pre-marital sex is normal. Having kids outside of marriage is pretty much fine. And for conservatives, I can see how these things might be perceived as evidence of a wider relaxation of moral standards. However, I think what’s missed is the areas in which standards are actually becoming much stricter. For example, Stewart Lee often defends political correctness: in this clip, he notes that when he grew up in the 70s, people were very happy being very explicitly discriminatory based on race or sexuality or whatever else. Today, that’s not acceptable behaviour. Of course it’s possible to conceptualise this PC agenda within the framework of tolerance – you have to be tolerant of people of different races etc etc – but suddenly this perception of tolerance as a sort of dangerous hyper-permissiveness starts to wobble. We’re building a society today where people can walk down the street without being harassed for being gay or black or whatever. We are so fucking permissive that we want to make it safe for people to be gay or black or whatever. That’s staggeringly permissive, and frankly, I think it’s making society into a degenerate fucking shambles.

So when Smith makes reference to this eroded scaffolding of values that used to shape and limit tolerance, it’s not necessarily convincing. I think the scaffolding of values has changed – and in many ways, changed in a deeply positive way. We’re getting much better at understanding things like consent – well, actually, consent serves as another clear example of the problems with this demonization of tolerance. Some Christians have said to me that if people only had sex within marriage, we wouldn’t have to worry about all this consent nonsense. For these people, the problem stems from our hyper-permissive society that accepts pre-marital sex, which then causes confusion about consent and people get confused and accidentally rape each other and it’s all because of our pesky permissiveness confusing the issue instead of, you know, rapists. Obviously this is stupid. Rape existed before 1960, and consent is especially important within the bounds of marriage – if there’s no consent, it’s marital rape, which is literally a crime. But rather than seeing consent training as a positive solution to an awful situation, the problem is displaced onto our supposedly over-permissive society. Consent is treated like a band-aid solution that will fail to resolve the underlying issue of permissiveness; subsequently these Christians resist the idea of consent and hinder our efforts to make society a better place, all the while condescending to us about how we’re too tolerant of unacceptable behaviours. Fuck the fuck off.

Here’s the other thing. I referenced homosexuality and abortion earlier as two examples of things that conservative Christians might see as sinful products of a hyper-permissive culture. I’ve explained why I think the concept of a hyper-permissive culture is dumb (because it portrays a restructuring of societal values as an erosion), but there is a further question. I really hate talking about homosexuality and abortion, not because they’re unimportant but because they’re over-discussed as points of difference between conservative Christianity and mainstream society. That said, they are also significant points of difference between conservative Christianity and mainstream society. There will be no consensus on these issues. The question, then, is how the different groups go about co-existing. Majority rule isn’t really good enough – if you’ve got a 52/48 split (lol brexit), there are clearly significant divides in society. What we need is more theorizing around our collective identity, our together-but-different-ness.

Tolerance, then, emerges as an absolutely key issue today. It’s not that we all just have to accept a status quo that masquerades as morally neutral, and it’s not that we all just have to accept all possible views as if they’re all equally valid. That’s a caricature of the work that’s ahead of us. The point is that there are a bunch of deeply different beliefs running around in society today, and many of them are fundamentally irreconcilable. And you probably get angry about some of the beliefs that you think are awful or sinful or bad or whatever – and that’s entirely legitimate. And there will be weird fringe shit that we’ll collectively just chuck the fuck out, and we’re going to have a fuckload of arguments about what counts as weird fringe shit and what counts as a valid point of view. But ultimately there will be people who you disagree with that you’ll just have to learn to deal with. In order to keep our society functioning, we need an element of brutal pragmatism. Co-existence is hard fucking work, and the issue of tolerance is the issue of figuring out how to productively co-exist when these divides are becoming sharper. It’s about keeping our civilization on the fucking tracks and limping our stupid way towards a better fucking future. So if you’re one of those fuckers who’s complaining about tolerance or permissiveness or PC culture or some shit, stop throwing your toys out of the cot and learn to share the planet with the poor fuckers who have to put up with you.

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