“I am intolerant of intolerance” has become something of a mantra for suppressing unpopular opinions. Today’s “new tolerance”, as it is called in academic circles, is redefining our understanding of tolerance and shaping our behaviour in public spaces, but it is no friend to the exercise of conscience and freedom of speech.
In the past, we used to “agree to disagree”. It was a respectful way to end debates before they degenerated into personal and hateful attacks.
We used to define tolerance in the phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” We allowed others their opinions and the right to express them.
New tolerance requires something different. It demands that we accept either the most popular view or the view of the most vocal group. If we believe differently, those who hold the dominant view, or shout the loudest, accuse us of bigotry. They cannot countenance our intolerance; we must be muzzled. This is especially evident when it comes to issues surrounding sexuality and gender.
The no-platform movement that has taking hold of western universities is the poster child of new tolerance. The movement, which denies speakers a platform, fosters intolerant behaviour in its misguided attempt to protect democracy and equality.
A few egregious examples of intolerance from the past:
Back in 2015, notable feminist Germaine Greer was to lecture on “Women and Power: Lessons of the 20th Century” at Cardiff University in Wales. Twenty-seven hundred students signed a petition that accused her of misogyny and inciting hate and violence against transgender people.
Greer’s unspeakable crime was to say that she does not think “a post-operative transgendered man is a woman”. But others required Greer (and anyone who might hold the same opinion) to think differently. Payton Quinn, a Huffington Post contributor writing in support of the petition, asserted, “If you believe that trans women are women, as you should because they are, then what Germaine Greer is espousing in her campaign against them is misogyny.”
Greer, incidentally, was not campaigning against anyone. She has not written about transgender issues for years, nor was her lecture about transgender issues. In her words, “It’s not my issue. I don’t even talk about them.”
But new tolerance is not limited to the no-platform movement on university campuses. In Canada in 2014, the Trudeau Liberals required all candidates to be pro-choice. A person who questions abortion must want to limit a woman’s right to choose; that person has no place in government.
Finally, Trinity Western University required students and staff to sign a covenant agreement with a clause that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The institution must be discriminating against LGBTQ people; it must not be allowed a law school.
It is no longer enough for a tolerant individual to treat people with the respect and dignity that all individuals – gay, trans, or straight – deserve. We must now accept the most popular views and believe what the most vocal group tells us to believe. To do otherwise is anathema.
Tolerance does not come easily or naturally to us. It requires practice. From time to time, we need to check our attitudes. We need to make sure that our concern for one group does not express itself as intolerance for someone else, that we do not become violent, hateful, or self-righteous in the name of tolerance.
Social media has done little to promote tolerance. Social media sites that invite us “to join the conversation” frequently become platforms for intolerance. Outrage, insult, and hatred characterize many social media exchanges. These exchanges do little to foster understanding of ‘difference’, or to improve society.
It is easier to spew contempt than to allow different voices the latitude to speak. If we are serious about the freedoms of conscience and speech, we cannot bully or exclude others when their opinion goes against the grain. Rejecting an opinion is not the same thing as rejecting a person, or discriminating against a group.
This new tolerance is intolerance in disguise.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.