Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Redefining Tolerance

We've already seen that moral relativism (in all its flavors) is an untenable view, and one that no one can live out consistently. We've also seen that the existence of tolerance, the hallmark virtue of relativism, provides further evidence for moral objectivism and against relativism.

But what we need to do today is to unpack tolerance and see how it has been redefined in our postmodern culture. Again, we will see that this redefining involves some pretty shoddy thinking.

Throughout history, tolerance has meant that respect is to be accorded to persons, and specifically to persons with whose ideas we disagree. In today's muddled culture, it is common to believe that it is different--and often contradictory--ideas themselves to which tolerance is to be applied and respect extended. One doesn't have to think too hard to see that this is nonsense. Let's take an easy example; here's an idea:
All ideas are equally valid, and therefore deserve equal respect.
Here's another idea:
All ideas are not equally valid. Some are contradictory, and some are plainly wrong.
According to the first (the postmodern) idea, the second idea is perfectly valid, even though it states the exact opposite of the first. Agreeing with the first idea therefore leaves us hopelessly enmeshed in contradiction. In other words, the two ideas are irreconcilable if the first is true. The two statements are best reconciled by acknowledging that the second (the traditional) idea is correct, and that (therefore) the first is one of those that qualifies as plainly wrong.

There are all sorts of silly ideas. How about, "The Earth is flat!" Well, maybe that doesn't sound too silly. Maybe you haven't travelled much and don't trust the photographs that NASA gives us, allegedly taken from space. So how about this one: "The Earth sits on the back of a giant turtle!" I hope you can bring yourself to identify this as a silly idea. And while you may not be able to personally avow that "the Earth is more or less spherical in shape," it ought to be plain that it cannot be both flat and spherical and perched on a turtle's back and orbiting the sun without the aid of giant turtles all at the same time. One or more of these ideas is wrong, and it only requires one good counter example to refute the relativist's statement that all ideas are equally valid.

Tolerance is a good thing, a very important virtue, and one upon which our great nation was founded. But let's get back to understanding it aright. Tolerance means respecting other persons despite the fact that we do not agree with their ideas (political, religious, moral, or other). Tolerance does not mean kidding ourselves into thinking that all ideas (including mutually exclusive ones) are equal.

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