The Myth of Tolerance

When UNESCO declared 1995 as the “Year Against Intolerance”, the Nicaraguan Institute for Culture and the Cultural Association “New Acropolis” planned to publish a cultural supplement under the title Towards Concord Through Tolerance, whose objective was “to foster this feeling that seems to be almost extinct in our peoples.”

My pride was shaken when I found my name next to the names of thirty-three of the most outstanding personalities in the nation, who had been invited to participate in this project. But, once the temptation was overcome, I consider myself to be inhibited (or at least embarrassed) from the possibility to participate in such a lofty initiative. In fact, even though I share the ideal of concord, I have justifiable reasons to doubt that tolerance (or the things that often come across us under its disguise) is the most effective way to reach this unity of hearts we aspire to. In addition, I believe that tolerance, far from being an almost extinct feeling among our people, has grown among us to such an extent that it is almost impossible to distinguish it from overindulgence.

Manipulating words to corrupt the truth

In order to understand each other better, let us begin by clarifying concepts. Let us remember that manipulating words has always been the most effective tool to corrupt the truth.

The Dictionary of the Spanish Language published by the Royal Spanish Academy offers us the following definitions:

Tolerate: 1. To suffer, to bear patiently. 2. To allow something that is not held as legitimate, without explicitly approving of it.

Tolerance: Respect and consideration for the opinions or practices of others, even if they are disgusting to us.

The quickest reading of these definitions immediately shows that, in the name of tolerance, many things are demanded today that go beyond the scope of the notion of tolerance. When we read, for example, the manifestos and literature of the Gay Movement or of certain (lesbian) trends in the Feminist Movement, we realize that neither of them simply intends to be tolerated, that is, to be withstood patiently without approval, but precisely the opposite. They intend, and have managed to achieve, to have their sexual preferences be approved and placed at a level of social equality with the heterosexual relationship that makes the perpetuation of the human race possible. They require that the remaining 98% of us be the ones to change, not only in attitude, leaving behind extreme positions that would make them victims of mockery and contempt, but to change our minds and even our morality, and to raise their particularity to the level of an inalienable right. None of this demands tolerance.

Extending the sexual revolution and redefining of gender, marriage and family

It all began with a sexual revolution that emptied sexual relationship from every sense of responsibility and separated it from procreation, encouraging the use of contraceptives, up to the point of limiting it to the mere sphere of pleasure (which is also claimed as a right). Now it has come to the point of claiming the right of homosexuals and lesbians to marry and to adopt children that will grow up in their image and likeness. The request for understanding and respect (tolerance) has now become a demand for equality of job opportunities. Now this is claimed as a right, and companies, schools, or the army, are required to hire or recruit members of those groups in specified proportions.

All of these are achievements have already obtained in the United States and in other countries, and they might have an explanation under a different name or pretext (perhaps as an effective tool for birth control), but certainly not as an expression of tolerance, unless the definition of tolerance is twisted and inflated.

The same can be said of abortion, which went from being tolerated by the state to being demanded as a right, so that contributors are currently required to finance with their taxes, in state clinics, the free enactment of a form of murder they cannot agree with.

These three things – homosexuality, lesbianism and abortion – plus so many others that are added day by day, have as their common argument the notion that we are the owners of our own bodies.

As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters:

The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell, and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they “own” their bodies – those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another!

C. S. Lewis

The examples above do not exhaust the long list of things that are required today in the name of tolerance. In the past few weeks we witnessed the great mess that emerged concerning the accumulation of garbage in our sidewalks. Nobody thinks about claiming for tolerance or come out in defense of filth or pollution. But it is precisely tolerance that is claimed as a right (the right to freedom of expression) by those who set out to fill with garbage and filth, not our streets, but our homes, and the minds of our children, through the propagation of violence, pornography and stupidity in the mass media.

This reminds me of the words of Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn in his address at Harvard University in 1978:

Western society today has revealed the inequality between freedom for good and freedom for evil… The defense of the rights of the individual has come to such an extreme, that it leaves society in a state of defenselessness against certain individuals. It is the task of the West to advocate, not so much human rights, but human duties.

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

I honestly wonder whether tolerance thus understood can really be a way to concord, or whether it has actually been and will continue to be a cause for discord. I wonder whether the current Nicaraguan crisis, our greatest stumbling block that can lead us once more into chaos, is not precisely the tolerance that has been shown towards the intolerable.

Tolerance has a limit, which is the one set by law. You cannot expect concord from tolerance to governmental corruption which is punished by law, or to the arbitrary usurpation of private or state property, or to the destruction or damage to the properties of the people, or to closing streets and highways, or to the takeover of public buildings, or to environmental pollution disguised as a right to strike.

The reason why I believe that such a tolerance cannot be a way to concord is very serious. The concord of peoples and the peaceful common life of citizens is based on the respect for the rights of others. In Benito Juárez’s words, “Respect for the rights of others is peace.”

But, which is even more serious, human concord and common life are based on what sociologists have called the social contract. This social contract inescapably requires an agreement concerning the things that can be permitted and the things that cannot. It assumes a set of ideas, values and patterns of behavior we all agree to and to which we all agree to submit ourselves. Historically, what our nations took as the basis for this social contract is Judeo-Christian law and tradition, which they cast in innumerable ways into their constitutions and laws.

At all times there were people who broke these laws, but their behavior did not invalidate the acceptance of the fact that their act was not permissible, and that those who acted against those values incurred the punishment and the weight of the law.

Democratic nations decided that it would be the people themselves who would set the laws, through representatives elected by the people. And these representatives, in turn, would legislate in support of the ideas, values and patterns of behavior of the majority they were representing and who had elected them. There existed, then, a social contract that minorities were supposed to respect.

Impact of relativism, subjectivism and atheistic secular humanism

Over the last few decades, two phenomena have come up that presage a very dark future for mankind as a whole. The first is a result of relativism, of subjectivism and of atheistic secular humanism. What these three trends ultimately say is that every man is his own master and can govern himself by his own conscience, and nobody can impose on him a set of laws or values from without, in the name of an authority or of a higher being that does not exist.

We cannot attain a social contract if the dominant idea is that every individual is his own master, and that he has his own good reasons and therefore the right to be and to act as he wills. Perhaps for the first time in history we are facing the impossibility of drafting a social contract that can safeguard common life.

The second phenomenon is that of those democracies which, in their concern to safeguard the rights of minorities, have to such extent broken the rights of majorities that, what once was the government of the people, by the people and for the people has now become the government of organized minorities, with the tolerance and complicity of so-called silent majorities.

The tolerance of disrespect for the desires and concerns of majorities to benefit the interests or whims of minorities is not the best way towards concord. Minorities have their rights, but their rights are also limited by respect for the rights of others and by the laws that protect the common good.

If to tolerate is to suffer, to patiently bear and allow something that is not considered to be lawful, without explicitly approving of it, then the most tolerant person I know is God himself, who defines himself as slow to anger, rich in mercy, but who does not leave the guilty unpunished.

God is so tolerant that he patiently bears our sins, and permitted his Son to suffer for those sins on a cross. He is willing to forgive the unforgivable which is sin, yet he does not excuse, approve or ignore sin, but calls us to repentance.

Mistaking forgiveness for excusing or calling right for something wrong

The problem begins when we mistake forgiving for excusing. To forgive means to restore a relationship with someone we recognize as guilty. (One cannot forgive the innocent.) To excuse is to declare that the guilty has no guilt.

God never excuses sin, but calls it by its name. Forgiveness erases the guilt of the repentant sinner, but does not dissimulate, cover up or minimize guilt. Neither does it call right something that is wrong.

I think something similar happens with tolerance. Concord calls us to suffer, to patiently bear and allow something that we do not consider to be lawful, but without explicitly approving of it. It calls for respect and consideration towards the views or practices of others, even if they are disgusting to ours. But it does not call us or require us to call right something that is wrong, or to grant as right something that is a violation of a law.

Perhaps this essay will put to the test the tolerance of those who often reply with insults and accusations to the views of those who oppose them.

This article is adapted from the book, From Egghead to Birdhood (hatch or rot as a Christian), (c) copyright 2001 Carlos Mantica. Used with permission.

Top image credit: John Lennon Wall with grafitti, photo from, © by modzele2, stock photo ID:  8200682. Used with permission. 

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