When people use the word “tolerance” in common parlance, it means something like endurance or forbearance. Our use of the word in the context of political discussion bears a somewhat different meaning, one that is quite specific. Even when Locke spoke in the liberal tradition promoting ‘toleration’, he meant something which to us seems very narrow: that different interpretations of Christianity should be permitted to be promoted and practiced freely without state punishment. But in modern day liberalism the concept of tolerance gains so much breadth that it becomes a fundamentally new idea, defined not by what it permits, but by what it is forced to outlaw.
In philosophy, an ‘absolute’ is a value or principle which is regarded as universally valid or which may be viewed without relation to other things. Colloquially, we could call it a foundational value. It plays a role similar to that of the axiom in mathematics. Political philosophies will be different based on their different foundational values, or absolutes, in a similar way that different geometries (like the Euclidean system versus a non-Euclidean one) will differ in their results or theorems because of their different axioms. In a (political) philosophy ‘axioms’ may not be as rigid as in mathematics, but the same concept is still, inescapably, there: a philosophy cannot be built on air, and some things must first be asserted.
Any significant nation in human history has had a core philosophy or idea that defined it. The general idea that a unified state is far preferable to a disparate one is at least as old as Plato.
However, liberalism, as it has developed in the past decades in Canada and the United States and in many parts of Europe and even to some extent elsewhere, has marketed itself, by invoking at its foundations this new concept of tolerance, as the political philosophy that has no absolute. I say marketed because we will see below that this is not what is actually the case. Moreover, it should be clarified before proceeding that throughout this essay when I speak of ‘liberalism’ I am speaking about this liberalism. I leave aside the complicated question as to what connection this liberalism has, for instance, to the liberalism of Locke.
Any significant nation in human history has had a core philosophy or idea that defined it. The general idea that a unified state is far preferable to a disparate one is at least as old as Plato. This unification may come through a common ethnicity, a religious system, or broadly a culture or philosophy - historically it has often been some combination of these. In the Soviet Union it comes mostly in the theology of Marxism-Leninism. In many cases it was something less clear than this, maybe not even all that rigorous. Dissidents and outsiders have always existed - but this does not change the broad fact.
However, we find something new in liberalism that allows, for instance, the current prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, to say: There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.
To avoid an expression of pure national nihilism, Trudeau qualified this proclamation with “There are shared values – openness, respect, compassion, willingness to work hard, to be there for each other, to search for equality and justice.” I don’t want to get into whether Trudeau is correct in stating this as a reality in modern day Canada. Surely he is just making an admission if he is describing the values of the elites and their footsoldiers.
Now, I think what he means by the first three - openness, respect, compassion - constitute more or less what is meant by tolerance, and this is what I want to talk about. We will make this concept of tolerance more precise below. The other things he lists seem platitudinous, other than equality, which I will leave aside in this essay. So, finally, the question that I want to investigate is: has a nation based around tolerance truly found something that allows it to transcend the struggles over values that has animated all previous human societies?
We have seen that tolerance constitutes an absolute at the core of Trudeau’s political philosophy. Which is to say, he asserts this as a Good, though he is not comfortable in giving much else that label.
To sketch how important and ubiquitous this concept of tolerance is in modern political life, let us speak specifically on Canada for a moment. Tolerance is a foundational idea not only to mainstream liberals in this country. We have seen the Conservative Party of Canada under O’Toole embrace this idea with at least as much outward zeal, to the point of ejecting member of his party for being too supportive of social conservative issues generally cast by the media as intolerant, and for unwittingly accepting a donation from someone widely deemed intolerant. However, I think the most interesting case is actually the ‘anti-fascists’ or those that generally consider themselves much to the left of the liberal mainstream in this country. These people often announce that they are not liberals and try to distance themselves from liberals. However, they are in fact the most fanatical liberals, and most of their problems with the mainstream liberalism exemplified by Trudeau’s Liberal Party is that it isn’t liberal enough. We can see this in realizing that when these people say ‘fascist’ they really only mean ‘intolerant’. This histrionic renaming of ‘intolerant’ to ‘fascist’ is just needed to distance themselves from mainstream liberalism and is also motivated by a desire to roleplay as old-school communists, like those who brawled with the NSDAP in the streets of Germany in the 1920s. But, generally, the ‘anti-fascist’ we see today in groups like Antifa is no true radical because he has already broadly accepted the definition of the intolerant by mainstream liberalism, thinking only that it should be stricter, i.e. apply to more speech and more actions. Hence there is no real anti-establishment movement on the left today, despite all the posturing.
But let’s leave Trudeau and look at what philosopher Karl Popper had to say about tolerance so we can get a more precise idea of what it really is and what it means for a nation to have it as its foundational value, or one of its few foundational values. Popper was intelligent so I’m not saying he would have liked Trudeau, but fundamentally he believes with Trudeau in the same promise of this idea of tolerance.
In The Open Society and Its Enemies Popper introduces what he calls the ‘paradox of tolerance’. It admits a contradiction at the core of liberalism, and particularly at the core of the concept of tolerance, which we have seen is so dear to liberalism. The contradiction is that unrestrained tolerance, which liberalism wants, will actually lead to the elimination of tolerance in a society, as intolerant people and ideologies will be permitted by this very philosophy of tolerance to overthrow it. Otherwise said, unrestrained tolerance is a self-defeating concept.
A solution to this problem is thus needed if liberalism is to be a tenable ideology at all. If there is no solution, the concept of tolerance itself is worse than useless as a tenet for a nation.
Popper, however, does come up with a solution. His solution is: a nation that wants to preserve tolerance must be (only) intolerant towards intolerant ideologies and people. So, Popper says, intolerance is needed to preserve tolerance, whence the paradox.
The more precise absolute of the liberalism we are discussing is not that tolerance is Good, but that the speech and actions that fall under the agreed upon definition of intolerance is Bad.
Popper may have been a theoretician, but we do see this being used in practice by liberal regimes. For instance, Trudeau has himself expressed reservations about the concept of free speech, precisely because that concept gives air to ideas he considers intolerant. More generally we see censorship and “cancelling”, particularly online, always justified by appealing to the fact that “hate” (i.e., intolerance) cannot be tolerated - and this we have seen goes far beyond calls for violence. As for actions motivated by intolerance, called “hate crimes” today, these are obviously already punished, and held among the worst of all crimes.
It is thus important to note that the concept of tolerance as it exists in a nation only makes sense given that nation’s specific definition of intolerance. Hence, the more precise absolute of the liberalism we are discussing is not that tolerance is Good, but that the speech and actions that fall under the agreed upon definition of intolerance is Bad. The ‘intolerant’ is where the liberal regime limits what ideas it is comfortable with and which it wants and needs to suppress. So though this may seem like a useless rephrasing, the important point is that the real asserting of values that is being done here is in the construction of the definition of intolerance: a nation limiting tolerance through the concept of the intolerant is the only thing that allows it to escape moral anarchy, or nihilism, which it recognizes as an impossible and self-defeating national philosophy.
This is certainly a significant phenomenon and not mere wordplay. To show this we can compare it briefly to the Greeks. For the Greeks the final purpose of a statesman and the laws (or legislator) was to promote virtue amongst the citizenry. This presupposes a confidence in one’s understanding of what constitutes virtue. In placing tolerance above all, however, modern liberalism betrays that it doesn’t know what virtue is, so the regime and the laws cannot promote virtue, but can only punish ‘intolerance’, which are supposed to be ideas and actions that are obviously heinous. Interestingly, though, as more and more emphasis begins to be placed on the evils of intolerance, a positive sense of virtue blooms in liberalism under the concept of ‘fighting intolerance’ or ‘fighting hate’. The sense of virtue that is most emphasized in liberalism is thus the one that is defined negatively, vis-a-vis intolerance, and not by directly appealing to positive concepts like courage and prudence. This is why we see today the major figures of anti-sexism and anti-racism exalted to heights previously reserved for great warriors and saints.
‘Intolerance’ is protean and always determined by the particular liberal regime in power.
Note that in general when something significant becomes acceptable in a liberal nation for the first time, something that used to be acceptable becomes intolerant. To take the easiest example, when (the open display of) homosexuality becomes acceptable, aversion to homosexuality, previously the norm, becomes intolerant. So it is rarely ever a broadening of acceptable ideas that occurs but usually a swap of what idea is acceptable and what is intolerant. Hence the core liberal promise of allowing free competing ideas to exist at once within its nation is not often fulfilled. In practice this is because on any significant issue, only one stance is ever endorsed by the elite in media and government, and the other stance(s) cast as intolerant, which means in practice forbidden.
We can now identify the sophistry of Popper’s formulation as assuming some objective definition of intolerance and moreover assuming that a liberal regime in practice can and will always and only be intolerant of behaviour that corresponds precisely to this objective definition, and nothing else. We know that in reality this objectivity is false. We have seen earlier that Locke’s promotion of toleration is not at all what is meant by tolerance today, and we have to be familiar with only the past decade of history to know that our current definition of the intolerant is not its final form, and that it may indeed change just as radically from Locke to now as from now to some point in the future. Which is to say, ‘intolerance’ is protean and always determined by the particular liberal regime in power. In ‘regime’ I mean to include at least the media in addition to government: actually, in our age, the media most significantly decides what is intolerant, not the government. This is because in practice the bulk of the people are predominantly informed by the (mass, corporate) media, so whatever the media convinces the people to be intolerant is the current operative definition of intolerance in the nation. Combined with, as we have seen, how central the definition of intolerance is to a liberal nation, this fact gives rise to the media-run state.
Thus, all that a liberal regime ever does is punish what it currently considers to be intolerance
As to whether Popper’s idealistic formulation considers the intolerant to correspond to the immoral, it is unclear. We can only note that in practice, the making of the current infallible definition of intolerance by the media and the liberal regime is devoid of the complicated and fallible process of determining what is moral. Those for instance familiar with Plato will know all the reasoning and argument that lies behind any proposition of ethics that warrants being taken seriously - but the media and liberal regime merely assert, and demand conformity, branding those who disagree and provide counter arguments as intolerant and “driven by hate”.
Thus, all that a liberal regime ever does is punish what it currently considers to be intolerance, and not, in the idealistic formulation of Popper, what is and always has been Intolerance.
So, after this clarification, we can restate Popper’s solution in a more honest way that corresponds to how it exists and is always bound to exist in practice, given the nature of politics and power: a liberal regime should punish people promoting and acting on ideas that threaten its current philosophy. In even simpler language: a liberal regime should punish its (domestic) enemies.
This is merely a circuitous way of arriving back at the core of the philosophy of Carl Schmitt as found in his book The Concept of the Political, summarized in his famous proposition: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” I.e., politics is reducible to the friend/enemy distinction.
The concept of intolerance is so powerful in liberalism that it is often invoked effectively by the elites to shut down behaviour it doesn’t like for other reasons, for instance behaviour that is financially threatening to them.
As we’ve seen, the simpler formulation of Popper’s solution is merely the idea that one should punish and suppress one’s (domestic) enemies. That is an admission that Schmitt’s reduction of politics to a primordial friend/enemy distinction is true, and that a liberal regime guided by and built on tolerance does not and cannot escape this. So in Popper’s solution we merely see liberalism admitting the reality of Schmitt’s theory of the political, and then attempting to cast legitimacy on the punishment of their enemies by appealing to the concept of intolerance, a concept we have seen to be vague and protean and in practice media-defined.
The concept of intolerance is so powerful in liberalism that it is often invoked effectively by the elites to shut down behaviour it doesn’t like for other reasons, for instance behaviour that is financially threatening to them. A recent example of this was the suppression of speech by retail investors who were causing large losses to well-connected hedge funds, which was justified not by appealing to any legal concept, but by appealing to intolerance, or “hate speech”.
Everything written thus far is not to imply that liberal nations are necessarily worse in reality than alternatives, from the perspective of the quality of life of the average citizen. It’s merely to say that there is no reason that a regime guided by the idea of tolerance must be less oppressive or in general ‘better’ than regimes guided by alternative philosophies - because, as we have seen, the liberal regime built on the idea of ‘tolerance’ is in practice not special, for like any other regime it punishes those that promote ideas contrary to the select ideas it has permitted.
Thus liberalism views other political philosophies as inherently more irrational and oppressive than its own. This is only because it does not recognize in its concept of intolerance a positive assertion of values, and thus ends up deluding itself into thinking it escapes Schmitt’s reduction of politics to the friend/enemy distinction that flows largely from two separate political entities having conflicting fundamental values.
Every system must have an absolute, and liberalism, despite its original skepticism or neurosis regarding absolutes, does not escape having one. It wants to take as its absolute having no absolute, which it calls unrestrained openness and tolerance. But it then realizes this is an impossibility, and proceeds to limit the idea of tolerance with the idea of the intolerant. A core part of its absolute is then identified as stemming from how it chooses to define intolerance, i.e. what it asserts as constituting intolerance. This definition inflates over time, subsuming more and more ideas that have historically been normal and acceptable, as those ideas now become threatening to the current goals of the liberal regime. Like any regime it proceeds to punish and suppress its enemies.