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

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