The Limits of Tolerance

Preface: Tolerance in the Age of Apallism

Demagogues are enjoying full success with half-truths. In order to stop them, we must agree with them where they are right, and criticize them where they distort reality. That is
how we put out the fire on which they steep their ideologic cup of tea.

But that is easier said than done. For we are living in an age of “appallism”: being on the
“right side” and being “genuinely appalled” often count more than the ability of weighing
different views against each other in an unbiased way. Appallists have filled the public
space with sensational phrases in a way that a rational debate seems hardly possible
anymore. “Sentiments instead of arguments” is the motto, and the results can be
observed on social networks. Whoever points out the dangers of political Islam is labelled
as a racist in a blink; whoever notes that not all Muslims dream of jihad is made to look
like a naive bleeding-heart.

Polarization is in. And so we see ourselves increasingly confronted with “alternatives” that
at best offer the choice between pestilence and cholera: “Rescue of the Christian
Occident” or “Islamization of Europe”; “Respect for Everyone” or “Drifting Into a New
Fascism”; “Military Protection of the Borders” or “Drowning in the Flood of Refugees”;
“Transparent Citizen” or “Rising Threat from Terrorism”! The philosopher Hans Albert
criticized the offering of such seemingly insoluble scenarios 50 years ago as “alternativeradicalism”. His analysis has remained shockingly relevant.

Admittedly, not everyone follows the trend towards polarization. Many try to avoid
radicalism by looking for “the truth in the middle”. That sounds somewhat serene, but isn’t
necessarily enlightened. For the truth doesn’t follow geometric rules. That’s where the
“extremism of the middle” is mistaken. It overlooks the fact that the truth can very well
be—and historically has been in many cases—located at the edges of society.

Even a brief look into history reveals that majorities can err just like minorities. For
instance, 500 years ago most people believed themselves to be the center of the universe
(many still do today!) and ostracized anyone who claimed the opposite—like Giordano
Bruno. Even just 100 years ago they used to believe that they could support their
children’s development by, of all things, giving them a proper caning. The fact that a
conviction is shared by 90 percent of the members of society says nothing whatsoever
about whether it is reasonable in any way.

At this point we can see what the particular strength of the modern, open society is. For it
protects minority positions not only because freedom of opinion constitutes a precious
asset under the rule of law, but also because the amicably adverse conflict of positions is
the essential driving force of societal progress. This is where the slogan “diversity instead
of uniformity” becomes valid, for it is true: it is only because we are different that we can
learn from each other. If we were always in complete agreement, we wouldn’t have much
to say to each other. We would have no counterpart that could correct us, but would
instead keep affirming each other in our prejudice, which would bring societal
development to a halt.

Historical experience shows that societies which penalize any deviation from the norm are
doomed to cultural standstill. At least a part of mankind has learned a lesson from this.
Thus, modern societies don’t consider the conflict of opinions primarily as an undesirable
disruptive factor, but as fertile soil for civilizational progress. This is expressed in the
beautiful term, “culture of dispute”, indicating what the modern era is essentially about,
namely a culture of having disputes. Indeed modern societies are characterized by not
only allowing, but actively supporting the debate about “the true, beautiful and good”.
However, they should not do this in an unregulated way, but according to clearly defined
cultural guidelines, which could be called the game rules of civilized conflict.

We will examine these game rules more closely over the course of the text, but it should
be comprehensible already—without further explanation—that what is demanded most
from the participants of the societal debating game is this: a considerable amount of
tolerance. The reason for this is obvious: those who simply cannot bear other people
asserting views that deviate substantially from one’s own convictions will not be able to
come to terms with an open society.

Tolerance is not a value in itself however. A tolerant attitude may be warranted in many
cases, but by no means always and everywhere. Any form of tolerance would be out of
place when, say, we are faced with systematic violations of human rights. Whoever can
readily condone such things doesn’t demonstrate an enlightened, tolerant attitude, but
betrays the ideals of enlightenment, which have spawned the principles of tolerance.
We should therefore refrain from general calls for more tolerance and respect, as they are
put forward by politicians with unwelcome regularity. After all, much of what is happening
in the world, what people think or how they act, deserves no respect whatsoever! Some of
it even threatens the open society in such fundamental ways that it should go without
saying that any form of indulgence is unacceptable.

We certainly must not grant the enemies of the open society the freedom to undermine
the foundations of freedom itself. That’s why we must stop giving out tolerance and
respect indiscriminately, for it is anything but irrelevant to whom we give tolerance and
respect. It would only be irrelevant if all traditions, ideologies and lifestyles were equally
valid. But this is, as I am going to show, by no means the case.

It is one of the basic evils of our time that a majority of the people are either not willing or
not able to differentiate between human and inhuman, justice and injustice, truth and
propaganda, reasonable and absurd. Thus, the vital problem that we have to deal with is
not a lack of tolerance, but an excess of ignorance.

We encounter ignorance in a wide variety of different manifestations these days: as selfcentered tunnel vision, masking out all problems beyond one’s own short-term interests.As a postmodern delusion of indifference and equal validity that rejects even the most timid attempt of rational differentiation as insufferable insolence. As opportunistic
spinelessness, misjudging the consequences of one’s own actions, because it assumes
that all problems will take care of themselves if only one presents oneself sufficiently neat
and well-behaved. And last, but not least, as an appallistic herd instinct attacking any
argument, no matter how reasonable, as long as it is expressed by the “wrong side”.

All these forms of ignorance prevent us from taking a clear stance in the right place at the
right time. They undermine any reasonable strategy of defending the open society against
its enemies. And they strengthen all those forces whose goal it is to turn back the wheel of history for decades, if not even centuries.

In the following chapters we will explore how these forms of ignorance emerged, and what
standards we should apply in order to make a well-founded distinction between true and
false tolerance, as well as true and false respect. We will find in the process that we can
only draw the lines of tolerance in a sensible way if we are aware of the values that form
the basis of the open society.

An effective defense of freedom can, as I will demonstrate, only succeed if we bring
ourselves to strengthen the profile of the secular rule of law. It would be foolish, in
contrast, to close the cultural gates and, out of fear of terror and fundamentalist
infiltration, give up on all the achievements of civilization that we should actually be
defending. Hence in this book I will argue for protecting the open society by emphasizing
its core elements much more than has been done previously. The result will be, inter alia,
a concept that can probably be best boiled down to the paradoxical sounding formula
“deterrence through freedom”.

Readers of my previous books will note that in this pamphlet, arguments will occasionally
come up that I have already presented in the past. This is inevitable, for in my publications
about evolutionary humanism I touched on topics that are closely connected with the
question about the limits of tolerance. I am convinced, however, that the focus of this book
will shed new light on many issues. Furthermore, there is certainly nothing wrong with
recalling arguments that may be old, but not outdated. For twenty years now I have been
warning that the 21st century could become a “century of global religious wars” if we
don’t stand up for the principles of the open society much more decidedly. But, as they
say, some things should be repeated again and again until they are finally understood.

Translation: Janosch Rydzy
Original source: „Die Grenzen der Toleranz – Warum wir die offene Gesellschaft verteidigen müssen“ (Piper Vertlag 2016, „Vorwort: Toleranz im Zeitalter des Empörialismus“)