The Intolerance of Tolerance

Just recently I read The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson. Carson is one of the best New Testament scholars around, but what he writes in this book (although written from a Christian perspective) has more to do with contemporary politics. His main point is that the concept of tolerance evolved over time to become something impossible to work with.

Being a New Testament scholar, Carson knows very well how language works, and especially how vocabulary accommodates different concepts over time. Not long ago, tolerance was meant to be a secondary virtue. We tolerate things that we don’t like, but that at the same time we don’t believe we should destroy. That was the case between different Protestant denominations early in American history: Baptists, Presbyterians, and so on decided to “agree to disagree,” even though they didn’t agree with one another completely. “I don’t agree with what you are saying, but I don’t think I have to shut you up. I’ll let you say and do the things I don’t like.” Eventually, the boundaries of tolerance were expanded to include Catholics, Jews, and all kinds of people and behaviors that we don’t agree with, but that we decide to tolerate.

The problem with tolerance today is that people want to make it a central value. You have to be tolerant. Period. But is that possible? Should we be tolerant of pedophilia? Murder? Genocide? Can the contemporary tolerant be tolerant of those who are not tolerant?

Postmodernism really made a mess. Postmodernism is very good as a necessary critic to the extremes of rationalism present in modernity. But in and by itself it only leads to nonsense. Once you don’t have anything firm to stand on, anything goes. Everything is relative. Except that everything is relative, that’s absolute. Tolerance today goes the same way: I will not tolerate the fact that you are not tolerant.

Who needs a list of progressive professors?

Turning Point USA has a new list out of progressive professors. The list has already begun to be attacked as signaling the rise of a new era of McCarthyism where academics will be prosecuted for anti-American discourse.

I agree that the list should be attacked in so far that it tries to define what is acceptable discourse in academia. Academia should be a place where ideas, no matter how absurd or controversial, can be discussed and this list doesn’t help that goal.

There may be a limited place for safe places. Recently I’ve been willing to accept ‘safe places’ in those cases where individuals genuinely cannot handle certain ideas being discussed. There’s no point in, for example, attending the university’s Jewish student club and claiming that the Holocaust didn’t happen. There’s no point in going to a support meeting of transsexuals and claiming they’re going to hell. Etc etc. Emphasize on the limited though. I am willing to hold my tongue in support group settings, but that’s it.

That said the list, and the response to it, are funny in several ways.

Turning Point USA crafted the list to indicate professors who have been documented attacking conservatives. One professor barged into a Republican student and shouted profanity. I can see a point in the list if it listed only those professors who had a reputation for encouraging an environment of hostility – there is a different between being able to discuss radical ideas and yelling fire in a theater. I’m not so clear why Holocaust deniers are listed though. I don’t agree with such individuals, but if they only express the ideas I see no reason to avoid them. If Turning Point USA is serious about promoting a culture where conservative ideas can be freely discussed in academia it must be willing to protect the Holocaust deniers. Does Turning Point USA not realize the absurdity of trying to, on one hand, create a safe place for Judeo-Christian conservatives, and promoting the right of conservative ideas to be discussed in academia

What I find funny about progressives talking about the need for universities to tolerate their own ‘radical’ speech (what’s radical about wanting more government?), they themselves are intolerant to conservatives. Consider this: I’m a double minority – an illegal alien libertarian. Which of these two identities do you think is more cumbersome in academia?

After the election of Trump several members of the academic community assured me that I would be protected if need be. Yesterday the President of the University of California system released an op-ed defending the undocumented student community. Earlier today she announced that the UCs, including its police force, would refuse to cooperate with any deportation efforts.

In comparison as a libertarian I am often advised to keep quiet about my political views. At minimum I should try to avoid researching things that make it clear that I diverge from the rest of academia in political thought. Otherwise I will have a hard time getting my research published or be cut off from the social networks needed in the job market. On occasion I have found myself ostracized socially for voicing dissent on things like the minimum wage or affirmative action. I’m not alone in this.

In an ideal world I should be able to be an illegal alien, a Holocaust denier*, homosexual, and a devout Muslim** without feeling the need to suppress my view points. Academia should be a safe place for ideas no matter how radical.

Thoughts, comments?

*I’m not a Holocaust denier.
**I’m not a Muslim either.

Milton on Freedom of Printing: Areopagitica

Areopagitica 

A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England (1644).

(For my general introduction to Milton, click here)

‘We turn for a short time from the topics of the day, to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and martyr of English liberty’, Thomas Babington Macaulay (Whig-Liberal historian, writer and government minister), 1825.

The digitised text of Areopagitica can be found at the Online Library of Liberty here.

The strange sounding title is a reference to one of the key institutions of ancient republican and democratic Athens, the court of Areopagus. Appropriately, as we are looking at an essay on politics by a great poet, the Areopagus and its mythical foundation was celebrated as the core of Athenian justice in Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia. The Areopagus was itself an aristocratic institution preceding democracy in Athens and as such can be seen as what balanced the changeable majorities of the citizens’ assembly with enduring standards of justice, which have meaning in all ways of constituting political institutions.

What Milton looks for in this great institution of early experiments in constituting liberty is a standard for freedom of publication and finds that it offered a very tolerant standard, at least in the context of the seventeenth century. Milton suggests that the only restrictions the Areopagus placed on books of the time (all handwritten manuscripts of course) was with regard to atheism and libel. We are not going to look back at Milton or the Areopagus now as the most advanced instances of liberty when they prohibit expressions of atheism, but these are times when the idea that a good and rational person could not be an atheist were all pervasive and the assumption can still be found later in the seventeenth century in John Locke, one of the general heroes of modern thinking about liberty.

The restraint on libel applies in all societies and all political thinking I am aware of, but one should never discount the possibility of an interesting exception. Leaving aside possible interesting radical alternatives, there is nothing repressive by the standards of general thinking about liberty in restraining libel. Milton’s interest in the standards of pagan Greece is itself a tribute to a spirit of pluralism and open mindedness in someone generally inclined to take moral and political guidance from the religious traditions of Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels, along with the writings of early Christians, and the Protestant thinkers of the sixteenth century Reformation.

The Reformation, as Milton himself emphasises, relied on the printed word, and it is no coincidence that Protestantism emerged soon after Europe discovered printing (after the Chinese of course), as a weapon against the institutional authority of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. The structure of the Catholic Church was not just a matter of church offering a choice to people seeking a faith-based life, it was connected with state power and pushed onto societies as the only allowable life philosophy. The politics of religion comes up in Milton’s essay, including the issue of the relation of the state to the church hierarchy.

While England had a Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century (England including Wales, but excluding Scotland which had its own distinct Reformation before union with England), it had retained a state church, the Church of England, with Bishops. Milton, like many on the side of Parliament in the Civil War, was against Bishops, referred to as prelates, as part of the old Catholic hierarchy in which the ‘truth’ was given from above to the mass of believers.

Inspired by the pamphlets of and books of Protestant reformers, Milton argues that truth can have many forms and that while Christianity may require acceptance of central truths, they can be expressed in more ways than the Catholic hierarchical state-backed tradition allows. State backing, of course, included the imprisonment, torture, and burning to death of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition.

Milton refers to the last pagan Roman Emperor, Julian ‘the Apostate’ (reigned 361-363) with regard to his policy of banning Christians from pagan education. Milton argues that this was the biggest possible blow to Christianity, because it deprived believers of the intellectual capacity and credibility to influence pagan inhabitants of the Empire. Christian truth could only be convincingly understood, communicated, and taught if it drew on all areas of learning including what had been produced by pagans.

Truth benefits from being tested in argument and contestation, something undermined by state-enforced church power as well as by the monarchical institution of courts full of sycophants and yes-sayers. Political liberty requires republican representative institutions and truth, including the truths of religion, require testing in conditions of liberty.

Unfortunately, Milton supported legal discrimination against Catholics, but as with prohibitions on expressions of atheism, this was part of the general understanding of a just state at the time, and Milton was more tolerant than many on the Protestant as well as Catholic sides. His arguments make up a part of the general movement to tolerance and freedom of speech, making very powerful points on behalf of liberty, enabling us to take them beyond the limits within which he constrained them.

Next post, Milton on political institutions

Language and Informational Prisons: The Case of Arabic

What language you are born into matters. It matters because it’s a means of communication and it matters even more because it’s a kind of soft prison. I regularly turn off the French language media because I become cumulatively irritated at the number of absurd statements I hear coming out of the mouths of presumably university-educated French newsmen and newswomen. There are fewer absurd affirmations in the news in this English-speaking country simply because good information is more abundant in English than it is in French.

We are used to believing that whoever is intelligent is also well informed. The reverse, we know, is not true. There are plenty of people who accumulate information and who are perfect fools. The best way I have heard it put is from an anonymous author played recently on my local radio station (KSCO Santa Cruz 1080 AM): Being aware of the fact that a tomato is a fruit is to be well-informed; to abstain from putting tomatoes in a fruit salad is to be wise!

The assumption that intelligent people are automatically well informed is so general that when we come across someone who is obviously intelligent but ill-informed we study him like an infinitely interesting creature. I have known several people like that in my life. They drove me crazy. One I know now, is smarter than I, I suspect but nearly everything he believes to be true is false. My friend has made a philosophical decision not to have any electronic media in his house. He usually carries a book. Over time, I have come to suspect that he does not read very well, that he is dyslexic (whatever that means) or something like that. In general, we don’t think enough of this rare case: The ignorant intelligent person. Continue reading