Monday, October 19, 2009

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Do you agree with this definition of tolerance?

D.A. Carson introduced me to this quote (most famously misattributed to Voltaire) in one of his lectures. He has some very insightful thoughts on this subject in his lecture entitled Evangelism in the 21st Century. In it Carson discusses a shift in the definition of tolerance.

Tolerance no longer means allowing someone you disagree with the freedom to believe and practice something different then you. He says,
“A bare quarter of a century ago ‘tolerance’ was understood to be a virtue that operated something like this: If I hold strong views on any particular subject I am nevertheless judged to be ‘tolerant’ if I think that your views are bad, improper, even disgusting, wicked or stupid, but never the less, still insist you have the right to defend them. In other words, a ‘tolerant’ person puts up with somebody else’s views and insists they have the right to hold them even while – in the vigorous arena of debate – we might never the less disagree fundamentally on who is right or who is wrong. Such a person is a ‘tolerant’ person. But nowadays, that is not what ‘tolerance’ means.
Now it seems that tolerance means that you cannot disagree with anybody. Carson continues,
"Now ‘tolerance’ means that you don’t hold that anybody is right or wrong. Everybody is equally right or wrong. Nobody is more right than another person. If you don’t hold that then you are ‘intolerant.’ Now that is a huge shift … Under this new definition of ‘tolerance’ I don’t even know what ‘tolerance’ means because in the old view of ‘tolerance’ you had to disagree with someone before you could actually tolerate them.
I feel the pressure of the new tolerance. Postmodernism is an interesting phenomenon. I know that when I don't cheer on a friend who is spouting off a worldview that is wrong or possibly harmful to themselves or others, I am seen as intolerant. If I believe that I know a better way, I am instantly branded as arrogant, unkind and sort of stupid. Only the unenlightened believe that one thing is better or truer then another.

How I wish for a society in which people could discuss things freely without fear of being branded. Yes, this would allow for a lot of stupid and even hurtful things to be said, but the alternative is repression of freedom.

How does a Muslim, Jew or Atheist say to me, "You are totally right." They cannot because they do not think that I am. Likewise I cannot say that I agree with them. My desire is that we could discuss and even try to convince each other of the rightness of our views, but with kindness and respect. How else will we come to know if there is a better way. Should we be content to muddle around in the dark because we are afraid to ask and afraid to admit what we believe for fear of offending someone?

The kicker is that this new tolerance is by it's very nature intolerant. If I say that you cannot disagree with anybody, I am making an absolute claim. Sometimes it is hard to see our own hypocrisy.

I need to be willing to really listen to others and to speak the truth in love. The alternative is a life of fear.

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