D.A. Carson: The Intolerance of Tolerance

Thoughtful insights from D.A. Carson on the development and ramifications of the postmodern understanding of tolerance. After listening to this clip, I began thinking a great deal about the content, the fruit of which I’ll post later this week. For now, enjoy the audio and the transcript:

The intolerance of tolerance… And it’s important to understand that the notion of tolerance within this framework has a certain intellectual heritage that has been transmuted by postmodernism.

Under the modernist paradigm, tolerance looked something like this: I may disagree with you, but I insist on your right to articulate your opinion, however stupid and ignorant I think it is.

That’s tolerance.

In other words, this means there is tolerance for the individual to say things with which I disagree. The tolerance is directed toward individuals. But, there is robust debate at the level of content and substance.

So, I may disagree profoundly with Marxist historiography; but, if I’m a tolerant person under a modernist regime, I insist on the right of the Marxist historiographer to articulate their views. But, likewise, under the Western vision of tolerance and under a modernist camp, I insist on the right of Capitalists to articulate their views, or Theists to articulate their views, or whatever—however right or wrong I think they are. So that unless there is something deeply, deeply damaging to public well-being, as for someone coming along and vociferously advocating pedophilia… then the notion of tolerance allows you to defend almost anybody teaching almost anything.

Because you see, under the modernist paradigm, the assumption is that in the marketplace of disputed ideas, the truth will come out.

There is a truth to be searched out. There is a truth to be pursued.

Truth, ultimately, is desirable and attainable.

So in other words, this view of tolerance is itself tied to a certain kind of vision of truth. A certain kind of epistemology.

But once you change that epistemology, and lose that vision of truth—tolerance itself is redefined.

Now, tolerance means that you must not say anybody is wrong.  That’s the one wrong thing  to say. But, now notice, under this view of tolerance, you are tolerant, not of individuals, you are tolerant of all positions. The tolerance is now directed toward all views that are articulated because you are not in a position to say that any view is wrong.

The one thing that is not tolerated is the view that this view of tolerance is wrong.

And thus you have the intolerance of tolerance.

Worse, if somebody comes along and says this view of tolerance is wrong, under this view of tolerance that person is not tolerant and therefore should not be tolerated.

That person is a bigot.

And because there is no understanding of tolerance directed toward the individual, but only toward all views—except that view that says this view of tolerance is wrong—the university campus can become a very scary place toward anybody who says that there may be an absolute right and wrong afterall. Or there may be an absolute truth.

I would argue that this new view of tolerance is in fact, logically incoherent. I don’t simply mean that it is inconsistent; that is, it proves intolerant. I don’t mean that.  It is inconsistent, but I mean something worse than that. I think that it is incoherent. Because the very notion of tolerance, under whatever regime, presupposes that you have to disagree with someone or something before you tolerate it. You see, if I say, “On my university campus I will tolerate those who propagate Islam, or Marxism, or whatever… ” It doesn’t matter. I have to disagree with them before I can use the word tolerate.

But if I say, “Well, y’know, you’re no more right or wrong than I am. I may agree with you. I tolerate you…”

It’s incoherent. That doesn’t even make sense. To be able to tolerate something, you’ve got to disagree with it in the first place. But if, in fact, you’re not in a position to say that any position is wrong, how can you speak of tolerating it?

Thus, I would argue that the new definition of tolerance is not only inconsistent, but incoherent. And it proves, in fact, to be less tolerant than the brand of tolerance that was around under modernism. Because at the very point where it comes up with that which disagrees with it most, it has to dismiss all opponents as intolerant and bigoted, and therefore becomes, in fact, totalitarian.

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books including the Big Truths Bible Storybook, Epic Devotions, Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty, and Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World. His next book, published by Lexham Press, will release in Spring 2023.

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5 Replies to “D.A. Carson: The Intolerance of Tolerance”

  1. […] post on the “tolerance” of gay activists. I think we need to have a discussion about what tolerance really means with gay activists, because I don’t think that word means what they think it means. Share […]

  2. CD-Host CD-Host April 24, 2012 at 11:47 am

    I think Carson is begging the question trying to conflate:
    political tolerance — which views will be suppressed through state action, or fail to receive full public support.
    public policy tolerance / rhetoric– which views will be allowed to influence laws. That is how arguments about public policy should be made.
    tolerance in manners — how to act with other people in social settings

    I can have tolerance in manners, indicating I’m not going to treat a view rudely, regardless of whether I agree, disagree or am indifferent to someone’s position.  I can suppress the speech of  someone whom I agree with on a particular position, or disagree with.
    What he is calling “new tolerance” is a shift towards greater tolerance in issues of manners towards previously disadvantaged groups and thus less tolerance in manners for advantaged groups.  For example tribal or racist sentiment are generally expressed with either strong disclaimers or in very controlled ways.  Conversely anti-tribal or anti-racist sentiment are allowed rather free rein.  
    “Old tolerance” was about which views are suppressed by state action and the we’ve had several centuries of greater and greater freedom in this regard.  The last generation with the rise of the internet has made almost any forms of absolute political censorship within the United States essentially impossible, and while mass communication is still firmly under elite control there is quite a bit more permissible dissent on it.   

  3. […] notes D.A. Carson on The Intolerance of Tolerance, if you can handle […]

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