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When Should Intolerance Replace Tolerance?

Tomorrow's Academy

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All of what we have said regarding the promise of pluralism in the academy does not gainsay the following difficulty: whenever groups or individuals, in the name of one absolutism or other, overstep the line between a respectful listening and clarifying and a disrespectful pontificating and ridiculing, then there will be times when intolerance must replace tolerance in order to preserve the principle of tolerance.







The posting below examines limits on tolerance in academic discussion.   It is from Chapter 2, Promoting a Spirit of Pluralism on College Campuses in the book, How to Talk About Hot Topics on Campus: From Polarization to Moral Conversation by Robert J. Nash, DeMethra LaSha Bradley and Arthur W. Chickering. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [].  Copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. A Wiley Imprint 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

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When Should Intolerance Replace Tolerance?


All of what we have said regarding the promise of pluralism in the academy does not gainsay the following difficulty: whenever groups or individuals, in the name of one absolutism or other, overstep the line between a respectful listening and clarifying and a disrespectful pontificating and ridiculing, then there will be times when intolerance must replace tolerance in order to preserve the principle of tolerance. This is the most difficult challenge regarding the paradox of pluralism on college campuses. Who decides what is safe and unsafe? What are the acceptable limits of tolerance and intolerance of strongly held (and expressed) religious, social, class, political, and cultural views? Again, who decides? What do we do when two or more implacable belief systems collide, and when all the learned conversation has led to one stalemated result? This is the unyielding conviction that the Whole Truth resides in only one point of view, and that therefore all competing truths are lies, heresies, or apostasies that must be repudiated and expunged, regrettably by any means necessary.


Is Rorty (1999) right when he says that we must always use "persuasion rather than force" to deal with "people whose convictions are archaic and ingenerate"? Who determines the guidelines for what beliefs are archaic and ingenerate? More important, what do we do when all the civil dialogue and attempts at persuasion end, and the shouting (or worse) begins? Unfortunately, we have no definite, once-and-for-all answers to such daunting questions that will please everyone. And neither does anyone else, including Rorty.


Here is Walter Lippman, writing in 1955 (cited in Hunter, 1991, pp. 238-239) on a guideline for pluralistic dialogue in a democracy, one that we find compelling even today:


If there is a dividing line between liberty and license, it is where freedom of speech is no longer 

respected as a procedure of the truth and becomes the unrestricted right to exploit the

ignorance, and to incite the passions, of the people... What has been lost in the tumult is the

meaning of the obligation which is involved in the right to speak freely.  It is the obligation to

subject the utterance to criticism and debate.  Because the dialectical debate is a procedure for

attaining moral and political truth, the right to speak is protected by a willingness to debate.


Although, as we have said, we prefer the word "conversation" to "debate," because it is less adversarial and dichotomous - guided more by a wish to reconcile and integrate than by a need to fight and win - we agree essentially with Lippman.  We believe that in a democracy and on a college campus, people have a right to speak freely on the issues about which they care so deeply.  However, this right carries with it the corollary obligation to allow others to converse and to disagree, and vice versa.  Moreover, people's right to freely express their views also entails that they speak about their strong beliefs in a way that engages rather than enrages, so that others might hear from them rather than fear them.  This means that no single voice is to be granted special a priori moral privileges in the pluralistic conversation.  All participants possess the same rights and must exercise the same responsibilities. The outcome of this type of conversation should always rest on the merits of the views expressed.


This means:


* Stop blaming and start affirming.

* Do more listening and less telling.

* Engage, don't enrage.

* Feel deeply and be passionate, but don't vent.

* Explain, don't complain.

* Let go, don't hold on.

* Request, don't command.

* Turn down the volume and turn up the sensitivity.

* Be curious, not furious.

* Inquire, don't require.

* Appreciate the process as much as the product.

* Remember that in the moral conversation less is sometimes more.

 * Let generosity trump animosity.


Furthermore, we must always be prepared to repeat this conversational process over and over, as often as necessary.  If any one of us refuses to accept mutually agreed-on rules of moral conversation on a college campus, then, sad to say, we must be sent into exile. Why? Because we have freely chosen to forfeit our right to be part of the ongoing conversation about any number of controversial topics on a pluralistic college campus.  We have chosen to communicate via conversation stoppers rather than conversation starters.  We have elected to silence others.


Finally, it is vitally important to have a clear understanding of what type of speech might be considered extremist enough  to justify exiling or marginalizing a particular participant in the conversation. What does one do, for example, with the infamous Holocaust denier, whose opinions might threaten the "safety" of some others in the moral conversation?  Actually, extreme cases like the Holocaust denier are relatively rare in our experience in leading moral conversations.  We try to be clear up front in the moral conversation that "extremists" of all kinds will be relegated to the margins of conversation if their speech continues to be corrupt, immoral, incorrect, cruel, or harmful, especially if it persists after participants have made a number of gentle, respectful interventions that might include challenges, clarifications, and valid counterexamples.  Such moral descriptors as "corrupt," "cruel," or "harmful," of course, represent value judgments that, at the very least, ought to be contested. Thus each descriptor will need strong justification on the part of the conversational leader.


But who exactly are these "extremists"? Does this group include, along with Holocaust deniers, members of the Jesus seminar (and Thomas Jefferson), who deny the existence of a historical Jesus; speakers against white privilege who deny their own intellectual, aesthetic, and Judeo-Christian privilege (along with their wealth and fame earned from doing "multicultural guild gigs"); atheists who deny the existence of Jerry Falwell's and George W. Bush's God; those members of Congress who at the outset denied the existence of WMDs in Iraq; or Rush Limbaugh, who denies the threat of global warming; and who know who else? The Holocaust deniers are actually an easy case because they are so extreme. They choose to ignore sound, irrefutable historical evidence, they possess patently harmful ideological agendas, and they function primarily to incite hatred against Jews, against whom their animus knows no bounds. But as our examples here show, there are other deniers whose rights to free speech, no matter how inflammatory, are not so easy to dismiss.


Philosophers have a saying: moral positions based on extreme cases make poor candidates for generalizability, because they are relatively rare and, at first glance, seem to be clear-cut. In contrast, the devil resides in the details of less extreme cases where moral ambiguity and honest differences of opinion are the norm. The principle of the paradox of pluralism is bothersome precisely because it provides no easy, one-size-fits-all answers to the question of how to deal with the controversial views of a variety of contrarians, True Believers, and controversial thinkers, some of whom might actually be on the cutting, albeit unpopular, edge of an issue. This is one of the reasons why pragmatists and postmodern philosophers eschew sweeping generalizations about truth and, instead, approach each truth claim on a case-by-case basis.