A Review of "The Intolerance of Tolerance"

By:  James Heiser
10/15/2012
       
A Review of "The Intolerance of Tolerance"

D. A. Carson’s new book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, is an exceptional work that stands out as having an enduring significance for understanding the roots of the current intolerant demands for tolerance. It offers readers an opportunity to comprehend the origins of the self-contradictory credo which is attacking the heart of Western culture.

Amidst a plethora of books and articles bemoaning the ills and absurdity of various forms of post-modern political correctness, few stand out as having an enduring significance for understanding the roots of the current intolerant demands for tolerance. D. A. Carson’s new book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, is one of the rare exceptions, offering readers an opportunity to comprehend the origins of the self-contradictory credo which is attacking the heart of Western culture.

Carson begins with the acknowledgement that tolerance is viewed by an overwhelming majority of people in the West as a bedrock value. Being branded as “intolerant” means, functionally, that one must suffer exile from civilized discussion. However, at the heart of Carson’s argument is the recognition that there has been a change in the definition of the word “tolerance” which permits, even necessitates, the “intolerance of tolerance.”

As Carson observes, the present circumstances are rooted in a change in the meaning of the term “tolerance.” The third chapter of the book, “Jottings on the History of Tolerance,” offers a serviceable introduction to this shift in meaning. Carson uses the phraseology of Edward Langerak to describe the “older tolerance”:

Toleration is the enduring of something disagreeable. Thus it is not indifference toward things that do not matter and it is not broad-minded celebration of differences. It involves a decision to forgo using powers of coercion, so it is not merely resignation at the inevitability of the disagreeable, although begrudging toleration can be granted when one believes that coercion, while possible, would come at too high a price. [48]

According to Carson, the “older view of tolerance makes three assumptions: (1) there is objective truth out there, and it is our duty to pursue that truth; (2) the various parties in a dispute think that they know what the truth of the matter is, even though they disagree sharply, each party thinking the other is wrong; (3) nevertheless they hold that the best chance of uncovering the truth of the matter, or the best chance of persuading most people with reason and not with coercion, is by the unhindered exchange of ideas, no matter how wrongheaded some of those ideas seem.” [12] The older tolerance is, as Carson notes, truly one of the key assumptions supporting modern Western notions of civil society. This older view of tolerance came with limits to what it tolerated: 

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Photos: The Intolerance of Tolerance and D.A. Carson

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