‘It is time that we reclaimed liberalism’

Frank Furedi talks to Brendan O’Neill about his new book On Tolerance and why he wants to halt and reverse the warping of the liberal outlook.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books

Frank Furedi, prolific author and Kent-based sociologist, will be familiar to readers of spiked for his spear-throwing at sacred cows. Not content with having waged a 20-year war against risk-aversion and the culture of fear, and having recently taken on the supernannies of the parenting industry and the dumbers-down of academic life, in his new book he sets out to reclaim the Enlightenment ideal of tolerance from today’s PC, value-lite elite.

In On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence, Furedi argues that tolerance has been almost completely denuded of its radicalism and humanism. It started life as a key ideal of Enlightened thinking, promoting the idea that the toleration of and interplay between clashing beliefs would help to nurture a healthy public sphere and a greater capacity to uncover the Truth. But now, in stark contrast, ‘tolerance’ is used to mean merely non-judgementalism, never saying anything rude or critical about another person’s beliefs and lifestyle choices on the basis that ‘you have no right to criticise’. And this gives rise, not to open-mindedness and rigorous debate, but to its opposite: a stifling atmosphere of ‘You can’t say that!’ and, ironically, an intolerant climate of intellectual restraint.

I sat down with Furedi and asked him why he thinks tolerance is worth rescuing and redefining for the next generation.

Brendan O’Neill: Did you ever feel tempted simply to let the idea of tolerance go, to resign yourself to the fact that it has been so demeaned in recent years that it is now beyond repair? You describe very well in your book how tolerance no longer means critical engagement, judgement and debate, as it did for Enlightened thinkers like John Locke, but is now simply a shoulder-shrugging refusal to make value judgements. Is it possible that this specific ideal cannot be saved?

Frank Furedi: You know, that did occur to me, the possibility that there are certain important concepts that have been totally distorted and you wonder if it’s possible to save them. And tolerance was very much one of them. When you look at the way tolerance is talked about today, nationally and internationally, you realise that it now has this terrible meaning attached to it – which is this sense of non-judgemental indifference. ‘Tolerance’ is now bound up with all these categories of being inclusive, being sensitive, the assumption that it is wrong to question and criticise and most importantly to judge.

But I figured that, in the end, it is important to defend tolerance. Because the fact is, you cannot reclaim some of the really important ideals of the progressive liberalism of the nineteenth century unless you reclaim the idea of tolerance. Without tolerance, you just won’t have the capacity to create a space where genuine discussion and debate can occur, where you can have critical engagement and where controversies can be pursued to their bitter end. It became evident to me that tolerance was far too important an idea to allow its contemporary pedestrian and illiberal redefinition to go unchallenged. Also, it’s a wonderful idea! It is important that the new generation of people making their way in the world understand that tolerance is not just an insipid bureaucratic formula, not just a way of saying ‘don’t judge’, but is actually something very creative.

BON: So if tolerance is not simply a refusal to allow criticism of other people’s ways of life, what is it? How would you describe the ideal of tolerance as it was understood and promoted by Enlightenment thinkers?

FF: The way I see it is like this: tolerance is an important ideal that is indispensable for the communication of different beliefs and viewpoints in an open society. The category of tolerance creates the conditions for the free expression of opinions and beliefs and for the behaviours associated with one’s individual conscience. It is a virtue because it affirms and cultivates freedom of conscience and individual autonomy. A tolerant society is one which recognises the right of people to act in accordance with their beliefs – so long as those actions do not harm others.

And tolerance is a virtue because it allows society to engage openly with moral uncertainty. Instead of closing down discussion in a desperate search for certainty, the ideal of tolerance actually embraces uncertainty; it looks upon uncertainty not as a terrible thing but as an opportunity to gain greater certainty through the development of knowledge.

BON: You talk about tolerance being a means through which people can pursue controversies to their ‘bitter end’. Today’s official promoters of pedestrianised tolerance would probably be shocked by that. For them, tolerance is about avoiding controversies, especially bitter ones, and instead having a shushed and safe climate. Are you saying that tolerance can and should give rise to a rowdy public domain?

FF: Actually, the reason tolerance first emerged is precisely because there were a lot of very bitter controversies. And the ideal of tolerance was a way of making sure that bitter controversies didn’t lead to violence or to physical punishment. Instead, you would recognise that it is essential that, however much you disagree with your opponent, in a civilised world people must have the freedom to express their ideas and as far as possible to act on them. So in that sense, tolerance is really the other side of having strong views and making judgements rather than the way it is understood today. The irony is that it is the suppression of open and strong debate that is more likely to cultivate bitterness and tension, because you are opting for silence rather than engagement.

BON: Today we’re often told that we should be tolerant of pretty much everything – except intolerance. We can tolerate all beliefs and outlooks but not any belief or outlook which is itself intolerant, such as the English Defence League or homophobic Christians. Isn’t that a profound contradiction in terms?

FF: Yes, you have raised a very important point. I find that when I give speeches on the issue of tolerance, the first question I get asked is: well, can we tolerate intolerant people? And basically, that’s another way of saying: can we tolerate views that we bitterly disagree with? I think what’s very interesting is that these days a lot of people, including people who call themselves liberals, spend far more time limiting the application and meaning of tolerance than they do expanding it. And they devote far more energy towards limiting freedom of speech, and writing about all the circumstances in which it doesn’t apply, than they do to upholding it. ‘Silencing intolerance’ is just another way of actually being intolerant of beliefs you don’t like.

BON: There are quite a few people around today who present themselves as upholders of Enlightenment ideals, and their main complaint seems to be that the values of Enlightenment are threatened by external forces, such as radical Islamists. They effectively argue that in order to protect the Enlightenment we must be less tolerant of unenlightened outsiders, which is weird.

FF: You’re right. The Enlightenment tradition is very often misapplied today, in a defensive fashion, to suggest that people who threaten the Enlightenment, or who are perceived to threaten the Enlightenment, cannot be tolerated. It is really sad that tolerance is misapplied by these kinds of thinkers in particular. Some of them say we cannot tolerate too many immigrants. But the point is that tolerance as a concept does not apply to groups in any case! It applies to people’s faiths and beliefs. To tolerate or not tolerate a whole group is equally irrational. Tolerance is something we exercise towards the views that people hold rather than towards who those people are. How can I disagree with someone being French? That’s just who they are.

BON: But do these so-called Enlightenment defenders have a point when they argue that society’s indulgence of certain immigrant views is problematic? When they say that it is one thing to tolerate people’s views, quite another to flatter and fawn over them?

FF: I think where they have a point is that there is an incapacity today to judge and to discriminate between values. And there is an unwillingness to make moral statements about what is right and what is wrong. But where they are wrong is that they don’t realise that if you don’t judge, then you’re not really tolerating – you are just passively accepting the situation as it is. I think the problem we have today is not the numbers of people who come from different cultures to live in Britain – the problem is that we are unable to make judgements in terms of what kind of life is desirable for our society.

BON: You talk about defending and clarifying the values of classical liberalism. Some people might be surprised to hear that, given your background in more revolutionary left-wing politics. Is there a contradiction here?

FF: The way I would explain it is that radical thought has as its presupposition a tradition of rationality and of Enlightenment. And that tradition is often most clearly expressed by some of the important liberal thinkers, from John Locke all the way to John Stuart Mill. You might say, well, there are limits to what those writers argued and I don’t agree with everything they proposed. But when some very basic points of that tradition are being demoted, when the ideals of rationality and reason are being marginalised, then the radicalism you end up with is an entirely rhetorical one, which is completely emptied out and which just makes uncritical criticisms of everything that is going on. Genuine radicalism was built on liberal traditions. Which is why I think that, today, the really important thing is to give a new meaning to liberalism, to reclaim its positive dimensions. And, of course, at the same time it’s important to explain that what is often referred to as ‘liberal’ these days is actually very different to what Locke or Mill thought; it is actually very illiberal.

BON: So, would you describe yourself as a liberal? And if so, how would you distinguish yourself from illiberal liberals?

FF: The problem today is that liberalism has been redefined as a soggy mainstream leftism, which, over the past 20 or 30 years, has become infused with identity politics, lifestyle policing, politically correct policies and so on. There is a lot of confusion about these categories, so that liberalism is really just a way of saying you are anti-traditionalist and anti-conservative, with none of the future-oriented elements of classical liberalism. Therefore, both those who call themselves liberals and those who attack liberalism are actually discussing a very different phenomenon from classical liberalism.

As to what I am – I’m not really sure. But I would say that being a liberal is a very important part of what I am. It is a key part of the kind of radical humanist politics I am keen to promote.

BON: In what circumstances, if any, would you accept restrictions on people’s expressions of belief? For example, this week Paris banned Muslim street prayers. If the public supports a move like that, is it justified?

FF: As I argue in the book, it is illegitimate to ban particular religious beliefs or practices on purely religious grounds. So, no, you should never ban the public chanting of prayers on religious grounds. But there is an argument to be made that if a particular town has a bylaw against noise pollution, for example, then it can in principle ban a minaret from being built in a particular neighbourhood or prevent chanting from occurring. Or if there are certain traffic restrictions on a street, it might be legitimate to ban certain religious processions that impact on the flow of traffic. The point is that the restriction is possibly legitimate if it is done on a basis that is quite separate from the beliefs and ideas being expressed, and if it would equally apply to non-Muslims who were chanting in the street.

BON: What are the dangers of today’s culture of non-judgementalism? It seems to me that it could be nurturing a new generation that is not only individuated but also quite arrogant, and always shocked when anyone criticises them or refuses to shower them with praise and recognition.

FF: That is true. Non-judgementalism fosters all of the regressive trends and infantilism that we see in lots of young people today. It encourages anti-social attitudes. A lot of today’s confusions and tensions spring from the refusal to judge. But even more importantly, non-judgementalism destroys the possibility of there being a constructive public life. Because non-judgementalism, which is presented to us as ‘tolerance’, basically means that ideas are not taken seriously. Really, it is just shallow indifference, dressed up in the language of an Enlightenment ideal. What people are really saying is not only ‘I’m so sensitive that I’m not going to judge you’, but also ‘I couldn’t be bothered to judge you’. The two things merge into each other. I think non-judgementalism is really a form of moral cowardice, probably the most dominant form of moral cowardice afflicting Western society today. And it is basically responsible for the regressive trends that I discuss in my book.

What is very striking is that, alongside non-judgementalism, there is also a kind of sanctimonious censoriousness – which is not based upon reasoned judgement but rather on the idea that certain things cannot be said and certain things cannot be done. So people shouldn’t think for one minute that non-judgementalism leads to an open-minded, open-ended society. It has the opposite effect. It encourages fossilised minds that have never had to think about and evaluate things in any real way.

BON: I was going to ask you about that. It seems to me that it isn’t a contradiction at all to have this flaccid, Oprah-style culture of non-judgementalism alongside a straitjacketed intellectual climate where certain things are unsayable – because if you are discouraged from engaging and judging, then you are subtly being hushed.

FF: Exactly. In the book, I talk about how the idea of ‘zero tolerance’ really means zero discretion. Zero-tolerance policies, whether they are related to speech or smoking or whatever, are actually a very lazy way of avoiding having to make judgements. It is always easier to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – or just ‘no’ in this instance – rather than to work out what might work in a particular circumstance. You shut everyone up or restrict everyone’s behaviour in order to avoid having to think about things in a bit of detail. So you have this situation where alongside non-judgemental tolerance there is this insidious bureaucratic culture of zero tolerance. You have a very powerful impulse towards censoriousness, being expressed by people who are non-judgemental.

You can see this in the way in which medicalisation and scientism are utilised these days. Through these categories, in relation to everything from climate change to parenting to abortion, you have the possibility of regulating people’s behaviour while avoiding having to account for your regulation in normative, moral terms. You are simply doing it because ‘the science says’.

BON: So, in effect, your plan to rescue the ideal of tolerance is an even taller task than I thought it was! Because tolerance seems to have been turned completely on its head. Now ‘tolerance’ itself, meaning non-judgementalism, fosters a culture which is restrictive and regulative, both in relation to our minds and our behaviour.

FF: Indeed. One of the most striking things in recent years is the way that governments have shifted from representing people’s aspirations to telling people what their aspirations should be. Through the idea of ‘nudging’ in particular, where officialdom wants to nudge us towards the right way of living and thinking, we can see a complete reversal of the ideal of popular democracy – governments no longer mould themselves according to our desires, but instead try to remould us according to their tastes. And they always say they are not judging us, just helping us.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. Frank Furedi’s book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today