Friday Book: Can we stand for intolerance?

THe Politics Of Toleration: Tolerance And Intolerance In Modern Life Edited By Susan Mendus, Edinburgh University Press, pounds 14.95

WELL BEFORE the century of Pol Pot and Heinrich Himmler, toleration was getting a bad press. In The Rights Of Man, Tom Paine wrote: "Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it. The one is the pope armed with fire and faggot, and the other is the pope granting or selling indulgences."

Paine's subversive point, distantly echoed by Bernard Williams's contribution to this volume, is that tolerators need to use power, just as Torquemada and the Ayatollah Khomeini do, and may be under-embarrassed by this fact. However, ironically, Paine's argument strengthens the hand of those like Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who are all too under-embarrassed about using power - and using it in the service of intolerance. In the political arms race over "law and order", talk of "zero tolerance" offers the powerful a new and ugly rhetorical weapon.

Toleration, then, remains politically hot. The studies collected here comprise the annual Morrell Addresses from 1988 to 1998 at the University of York. The invitees are largely representatives of the liberal great and good - academics (Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre), politicos (Garret Fitzgerald), clerics (George Carey, Julia Neuberger) and good eggs (Michael Ignatieff). In her editor's introduction Susan Mendus, the contemporary doyenne of toleration studies, forges their contributions into a cohesive whole.

Faced with these worthies, it is tempting to wonder whether we should be hearing about toleration from them, rather than from Ian Paisley, Louis Farrakhan or His Holiness himself. No doubt these buffoni would have little of interest to say about toleration, but it is instructive to note why. They know they are right. As Carey and Williams both observe, toleration is not indifference, and therein lies the problem. What forces toleration on to the political agenda in the first place is the faith - and the hate - that can move mountains.

Zealotry is less distant from "mainstream" democratic politics than it may appear. Reason in democracy is not infrequently the slave of the passions, and passion often decides what matters politically, as Christopher Hill emphasises in relation to 17th-century conflicts over religious freedom. Politicians with an eye to the main chance, like Straw and Ann Widdecombe, can play the vox populi. Its strain is not that persons or activities should escape penalty despite popular disapproval, but that popular disapproval is sufficient for banning them. So politicians freely drub the latest object of focus-group or red-top disfavour: asylum-seekers, fox-hunters, squeegee-merchants, single mothers or gypsies.

This threatens to sever the already ragged bond between liberalism and democracy. In one of the most interesting contributions, Alasdair MacIntyre, the moral philosopher, also questions the liberal ideal. His most arresting claim is that certain utterances (the classic case being Holocaust denial) can be justifiably banned within civil society, but not by law. MacIntyre rightly notes that censorship remains, in any case, much more prevalent than the liberal ideal assumes. When did you last see an article denying the Holocaust in this newspaper?

J S Mill in On Liberty advocated a free-for-all in opinions, provided that their expression avoids harm to others - as in his famous example of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. (How bad must the play be before this becomes acceptable?). "Offence" is in fact the rhetorical category fabricated to pretend that gagging the opinions of others is justified by Mill's harm principle, while respecting a commitment to "free speech".

Since all but anarchists will agree that some acts should be outlawed because they are objectionable, the defender of toleration has to say why objectionable acts should be banned in some cases but not others. As in the case of "hate speech", it is not obvious that toleration-based arguments work to the advantage of free speech or that, even if they do, that such arguments carry much weight in political horse-trading.

Some contributions, such as Helena Kennedy's, are full of high sentence. But a virtue of the contributions by Williams, Fitzgerald and even Ignatieff is that they acknowledge where political solutions have to start: with bargaining. Its outcome, nowhere clearer than in Northern Ireland, will be a deal which may be more "inclusive", or less so. In this setting, toleration can only take its chances against the other things people value - for example, the (for toleration) ambivalent value of solidarity, discussed by Fitzgerald.

The words of the old Irish nationalist ditty come to mind: "We're on the one road,/ maybe the wrong road,/ but we're together/ so who cares?"

Glen Newey

The reviewer's book `Virtue, Reason And Toleration' will be published in November

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015