We need tolerance, not respect

Non-judgementalism has helped embolden the state and curtail our freedom.

Neil Ross

Topics Politics

As part of spiked’s recent First Amendment conference held at the Newseum in Washington DC, I had the pleasure of chairing a panel on the issue of religious freedom. The session asked the question of whether religious freedom is the forgotten liberty in society today. During the discussion it became increasingly apparent that what has really been forgotten, or perhaps misconstrued, is the meaning and importance of tolerance.

In John Locke’s 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration, he wrote of the fundamental distinction that had to be made between matters for the authorities and matters of individual conscience. He argued that civil powers should have no role in determining the beliefs of the citizenry. He also wrote of the critical importance of distinguishing between thoughts and words, and actions:

‘Any one may employ as many exhortations and arguments as he pleases… But all force and compulsion are to be forborne. Nothing is to be done imperiously. Nobody is obliged in that matter to yield obedience unto the admonitions or injunctions of another, further than he himself is persuaded. Every man in that has the supreme and absolute authority of judging for himself.’

Now, Locke had his own inconsistencies. He was deeply concerned, for example, about the risk ‘papist’ ideas posed to civil society. But, even then, he accepted that ‘their religious worship and speculative opinion’ should be tolerated, at least where such views and practices didn’t pose a threat to society. Fast forward three centuries and we find ourselves facing a bleaker prospect.

Today, the goal of achieving social tolerance has been replaced with the goal of achieving universal respect. At face value, that might sound good. What could possibly be wrong with a world in which everyone respects each other’s point of view? Well, for a start, not all theories and outlooks are equally valid. Not all ideas are worthy of respect.

Take one topical example: the burqa. I think what the burqa represents is anti-social at best and medieval at worst. I don’t think women should wear them; I don’t like seeing them on the street; and I won’t let my kids be taught by someone wearing one. I have no respect for the reasoning behind them or the values they are said to promote. Would I run up to a woman in a burqa on the street and rip it off? Of course not. But I would argue against the wearing of the burqa.

This confusion of tolerance with non-judgementalism not only makes people wary of criticising religious ideas and practices – it has also led to calls from secularist campaigners for the state to ban them. France has banned the burqa, and there are campaigns across other European countries and Canada to do the same. This is only one of a growing list of religious practices and customs that governments have moved to ban, including halal or kosher school lunches, circumcision, prayer sessions and religious symbols. These bans, so the secularists argue, will diminish the role of faith in society and allow the light of reason to shine through. In fact, they only avoid reasoned debate of religious issues in favour of religious intolerance.

At the same time as states are banning certain religious practices, the state itself has also become a means through which every group that feels marginalised or disrespected seeks out affirmation. Gays, trans people, black communities, feminists, men’s-rights campaigners – all look to the state to provide recognition and support. In fact, today it feels as if one can no longer be a valued member of society without state validation.

The result of the state’s new role as validator-in-chief is that the individual is relegated to being an observer of society, rather than an active participant and a force for change. This weakening of the individual leads, in turn, to the erosion of a dividing line between the individual and the state. This dividing line should be upheld by strong individuals with the confidence to espouse their ideas and debate them in public; individuals who are prepared to tolerate ideas they don’t like but are, at the same time, not afraid to challenge; individuals with the social self-confidence to build communities free from state intervention.

Today we find ourselves in the middle of a dissociated group of respect-demanding offence-takers – from college campuses to the town square and beyond. Even the police are in on the act. This month, police unions around the US have been calling for a boycott of the new Quentin Tarantino movie, The Hateful Eight, in response to comments he made about police brutality. Unlike Tarantino, people are often afraid to be judgemental these days. Judging others is seen as a negative trait. But it shouldn’t be, considering the alternative is to drift into a relativistic morass where every idea is equally valid.

At our Newseum debate on religious freedom, one of the panelists was Reverend Robert Sirico. Locke might have been surprised to hear this ‘papist’ speak eloquently about the need for a renewed push for toleration. ‘I want the right to propose my ideas, not impose them’, he said. Me too. And, as a free-speech fundamentalist, I want everyone else to feel able to do the same.

To make this happen we need to unleash the individual and reclaim tolerance for the 21st century. Make no mistake, this will be no Kumbaya moment; people are going to get upset, they are going to feel disrespected, and, at times, it is going to get ugly. But only then will we be able to build a robust society of strong, tolerant individuals, ready to sort right from wrong, not in the courts or under the guidance of the state, but in the unruly and glorious arena of public debate.

Neil Ross is US programme director at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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