The age of intolerant tolerance

The meaning of tolerance has mutated in recent years.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

If the slogan of the Second World War 60 years ago was ‘Victory’, the slogan of the war on terror in Britain today appears to be ‘Tolerance’.

Almost before the last bomb had exploded in London on 7 July, government ministers, opposition leaders, London’s mayor, police chiefs and anybody else who could get the media’s attention were all emphasising the need for tolerance in our society. In the weeks since then, the demand for tolerance towards all communities and faiths, especially Islam, has become a mantra repeated on all sides. If you did not know better, you might think that the bomb attacks of 7 and 21 July were aimed at mosques rather than trains and buses.

Tolerance might sound like a worthy aim. Normally, I like to imagine myself as tolerant as the next angry middle-aged libertarian Marxist. But this is something different. Some of us are finding it increasingly hard to tolerate the way that appeals to British tolerance are being used to justify intolerant censorship and repression.

The pattern goes like this. Tony Blair says that we have to meet the extremist threat by ‘championing our values of freedom, tolerance and respect for others’. Then his ministers announce new plans to criminalise ‘indirect incitement’ of terrorism, along with tougher proposals to outlaw ‘incitement to religious hatred’.

The government must have a different dictionary than I do. Mine defines tolerance as ‘broad-mindedness’ or ‘permitting free expression of views one does not share’. In the Whitehall Newspeak edition, however, tolerance appears to mean the opposite. In order to defend our tolerant society we apparently have to ban views that most people do not share. Welcome to the age of intolerant tolerance.

A law against indirect incitement will do nothing to prevent an outrage such as the London bombings. There are already more than enough laws against plotting to blow up people on the Underground. No, committing the offence of ‘indirect incitement’ sounds more like what used to be called expressing an offensive opinion. The Lord Chancellor says it could mean ‘attacking the values of the West’. The Home Office police minister says it could mean declaring that a suicide bombing was ‘marvellous’. Others claim it would lead to the prosecution of Muslim clerics who have said that the London bombings were the fault of British people who voted to re-elect Blair. The government’s latest proposals for the post-bombings crackdown, outlined on 5 August, included a list of ‘unacceptable behaviour’ that could be prosecuted, including such vague offences as ‘engaging in extremism’.

Many people might well find the opinions expressed by radical Islamic clerics outlandish, fatuous and hateful. But are we now so afraid of words that we need to outlaw them, as if talking about a suicide bomb was the same as detonating one? As Lord Justice Sedley put it a few years ago, when throwing out a case against a ranting fundamentalist Christian preacher, ‘Freedom to speak only inoffensively is not worth having’. Those ‘values of the West’ must be pretty fragile today if they can be seriously threatened by the ranting of a few crank preachers. And elevating the importance of these infantile fantasists seems guaranteed to put them on the fast track to martyrdom among disaffected Muslim youth.

The proposed law against incitement to religious hatred is another bad example of intolerant tolerance. In order to ‘champion our values of freedom and tolerance’, it seems, we can no longer tolerate people having the freedom to ridicule or offend Islam or other religions. Yet surely that is one of the hard-won liberties of our genuinely tolerant, secular society.

The meaning of tolerance has mutated in recent years. First, it became a central plank of the official doctrine of multiculturalism. As examined elsewhere on spiked, the celebration of multiculturalism and ‘diversity’ has served as a substitute for any more coherent worldview within the British elite (see The price of multiculturalism, by Michael Fitzpatrick). That is why, when they try (and generally fail) to define what British values might mean today, politicians will invariably emphasise the importance of tolerance. In this context, it always ends up sounding as if they are saying, ‘Our central value is that we tolerate the values of others’.

More recently, however, and especially since the bombings of 7 July, it has become clear that this emphasis on tolerance is more than a vacuous retreat into non-judgementalism. It is also a threat. In order to maintain the fragile status quo in our fragmented society, the authorities are telling us not to rock the boat. Their idea of tolerance thus involves suppressing opinions or ideas that might cause offence or controversy. This is the doctrine of what we might call illiberal liberalism, summed up by the trite phrase ‘I can tolerate anything except intolerance’. Or as New Labour’s Welsh secretary Peter Hain put it after the bombings, ‘We will not tolerate people abusing Muslims’ (with ‘abuse’ now being so widely defined as to mean anything you don’t like). The message to all of us is ‘Be tolerant – or else!’

The authorities are trying to use the doctrine of intolerant tolerance to keep the lid on things and hide the empty hole at the heart of the debate about British values. But in the end it can only make matters worse. Forcing problems underground is not the same thing as doing something about them. Indeed, this approach is far more likely to intensify a sense of grievance on all sides: among Muslims who might feel that the continual calls for tolerance and condemnations of ‘Islamophobia’ confirm their special victim status in society; and among white people who might feel aggrieved at being lectured and policed as if they were a mob of bigots straining at the leash to burn down a mosque or beat up a Muslim.

In fact most people in Britain today are more tolerant than ever before, and there has been very little serious conflict between ethnic or religious communities since 7 July. But if anything seems likely to stir things up, it is the state’s enforcement of the etiquette of intolerant tolerance.

What we need instead is more genuine tolerance. This is not an appeal for anybody to go soft in the debate about terrorism or anything else. We need to tolerate the ‘free expression of views one does not share’, in order that we can sort out the truth in the open, instead of trying to bury difficult issues beneath a pile of bans. Let everybody freely express their views – and let us all have the freedom ruthlessly to question, criticise and interrogate everything that is said, about everything from religion to race, from suicide bombings to British values. Now more than ever we need freedom of speech for a frank and ‘broad-minded’ debate about the sort of society we live in and where it is heading (see Defend free speech – now more than ever, by Mick Hume). Instead, the doctrine of intolerant tolerance aims to stop anybody pointing out the embarrassing fact that the emperor of multicultural Britain has no clothes.

Now the government has even told UK universities, which surely ought to be the last bastions of broad-mindedness, to worry less about protecting freedom of speech and more about countering extreme views. ‘Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too’, Voltaire wrote in his Essay on Tolerance. Those in academia might like to take a look, before it gets condemned as intolerable.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

spiked-issue: Free speech

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Topics Politics


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