Thursday, November 08, 2007

Tolerating the intolerant

Tolerance is a personal virtue, but it's not a political principle. Freedom or rights - that's a principle. Tolerance is too fragile to bear the weight that people sometimes lay on it. Earlier this summer, the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter killed in Pakistan by Islamic fanatics in 2002, wrote this moving and pointed essay on tolerance and what's wrong with it. Unfortunately, it's behind a subscription wall, but here are some essential passages.
I used to believe that the world essentially divided into two types of people: those who were broadly tolerant; and those who felt threatened by differences. If only the forces of tolerance could win out over the forces of intolerance, I reasoned, the world might finally know some measure of peace.

But there was a problem with my theory, and it was never clearer than in a conversation I once had with a Pakistani friend who told me that he loathed people like President Bush who insisted on dividing the world into "us" and "them." My friend, of course, was taking an innocent stand against intolerance, and did not realize that, in so doing, he was in fact dividing the world into "us" and "them," falling straight into the camp of people he loathed.

This is a political version of a famous paradox formulated by Bertrand Russell in 1901, which shook the logical foundations of mathematics. Any person who claims to be tolerant naturally defines himself in opposition to those who are intolerant. But that makes him intolerant of certain people - which invalidates his claim to be tolerant.
Shall we be tolerant of the intolerant? The recent movie about Daniel Pearl's life and death, A Mighty Heart, brought this question into sharp focus.
The political lesson of Russell's paradox is that there is no such thing as unqualified tolerance. Ultimately, one must be able to expound intolerance of certain groups or ideologies without surrendering the moral high ground normally linked to tolerance and inclusivity. One should, in fact, condemn and resist political doctrines that advocate the murder of innocents, that undermine the basic norms of civilization, or that seek to make pluralism impossible. There can be no moral equivalence between those who seek ... to build a more liberal, tolerant world and those who advocate the annihilation of other faiths, cultures, or states.

.... Thanks to the release of A Mighty Heart, the movie based on Mariane Pearl's book of the same title, Danny's legacy is once again receiving attention.... At the same time, I am worried that A Mighty Heart falls into a trap Bertrand Russell would have recognized: the paradox of moral equivalence, of seeking to extend the logic of tolerance a step too far.
The founders of modern liberal democratic thought understood this point well, particularly in connection with religion, since that was the great burning issue of the Western world a few centuries ago, when modern liberal societies first took form around the north Atlantic coast. They could consistently apply rights even to religious sects they didn't like or thought were a little crazy. Some of them (like Voltaire, Jefferson, and Hegel) had ambiguous feelings about Christianity and negative views of Judaism. But their commitment to rights and to freedom of religion was unequivocal.

A more recent example was H. L. Mencken, the famous libertarian journalist from Baltimore. To his diary, he confided sometimes negative views of blacks and decidedly mixed feelings about Jews - even though, in his case, it was literally true that some of his best friends and closest colleagues were Jews. Nonetheless, he was a consistent critic of antisemites and one of the few national journalists to criticize Woodrow Wilson (originally from Virginia) for imposing southern-style segregation on the District of Columbia and the federal government when he became president in 1913.

These dead white gentlemen understood that political principles aren't just about immediate personal feelings. Rights or freedom as a political and legal concept has a precision and a solidity intrinsic to it that's not a necessary component of tolerance. Rights are not a unilateral indulgence, but a reciprocal recognition and a consistent principle. Tolerance is essential for common social life, but trying to make it a political principle turns it to mush - a lazy conformism that the "professional obscurers of moral clarity" slip into like a pair of comfortable but ratty old jeans.
Indeed, following an advance screening of A Mighty Heart, a panelist representing the Council on American-Islamic Relations [a Saudi-sponsored front group] reportedly said, "We need to end the culture of bombs, torture, occupation, and violence. This is the message to take from the film." The message that angry youngsters are hearing is unfortunate: All forms of violence are equally evil; therefore, as long as one persists, others should not be ruled out.

Danny's tragedy demands an end to this logic. There can be no comparison between those who take pride in the killing of an unarmed journalist and those who vow to end such acts - no ifs, ands, or buts.... My son Danny had the courage to examine all sides. He was a genuine listener and a champion of dialogue. Yet he also had principles and red lines. He was tolerant but not mindlessly so. I hope viewers will remember this when they see A Mighty Heart.

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