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Should We Tolerate the Intolerant?

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 17, 2011

Thankyou all for your comments yesterday, I found them really helpful.

In American Fascists Chris Hedges quite seriously analyses the US Christian Right as a fascist movement. One thesis of the book disturbed me. He quotes Karl Popper:

Unlimited Tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

~ The Open Society and Its Enemies 1:263

Christian Fascism

Hedges himself writes:

Debate with the radical Christian Right is useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue. It is a movement based on emotion and cares nothing for rational thought and discussion. It is not mollified because John Kerry prays or Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school. Naive attempts to reach out to the movement, to assure them that we too, are Christian or we, too, care about moral values, are doomed. This movement is bent on our destruction. The attempts by many liberals to make peace would be humorous if the stakes were not so deadly. These dominionists hate the liberal, enlightened world formed by the Constitution, a world they blame for the debacle of their lives. They have one goal– its destruction.

~ page 202

These quotes make me uncomfortable. What would we think if it was the Christian Right saying this about us? Is it true that the only exception to tolerating all, is not to tolerate the intolerant?


? What do you think?
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19 Responses to “Should We Tolerate the Intolerant?”

  1. I don;t theink the Christian right would use these words. They ARE all about destruction. They preach intolerance in a different guise than the one described above. I think they are BOTH right on the money.

    • I am coming to the opinion that tolerance vs suppressing the intolerant is a very fine line. And it’s the tolerant, not the intolerant that will probably walk that line.

  2. Hahaha! Friend Hazey on Facebook (are you friends with me there?) linked me to

    “ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters” (A parody)

  3. If we distinguish between assent to and consent to the existence of the intolerant then we reach a different kind of understanding of what tolerance is. I can accept and assent that there are people that spout vitriol, biogtry and general discrimination, but I do not have to sit and consent to them exacting those vices upon others, especially in a violent or abusive manner. Like a mitigated pacifist, I do not support the use of war and/or military force to solve all our problems, but I recognize as one who has studied under two martial artists of similar stripes that there are times when force is necessary to defend oneself and/or others. In this case, intolerance of the intolerant is contextual. But there are times when simply ignoring the intolerant will not stop them, just as ignoring a mugger attacking you or others is not an option either.

  4. Cristine said

    I am so disgusted at the hate mongering on both sides of the liberal/conservative movements. It would almost be funny to hear ‘one side’ going on about how hateful the ‘other side’ was if it weren’t so damn tragic. As a moderate, I see it on both sides, the huge division in my country and the wasted energy on the insults and attacks.

    Yes, the Religious Right is intolerant on several things. Yes, they think anyway but their way is ‘wrong’ but don’t they have the right the right to believe that? Isn’t it being intolerant to not let them live by their own beliefs??

  5. Grace said

    I don’t agree with Popper that any movement preaching intolerance should be seen as outside the law. People have a right to believe intolerant things and even to preach intolerant things (and those of us who disagree have a right to strongly and vocally denounce their views). What should be outside the law is incitement to violence against people.

    I think there’s an objective difference between the religious right and the rest of the U.S. in that the RR wants their beliefs to be imposed on others as law. That shouldn’t be tolerated. People have the right to believe whatever they want, intolerant or not, but they only have the right to act on their beliefs to whatever extent they don’t infringe on the freedom of other people. Many on the religious right believe that they do have a right to infringe on other people’s freedoms by imposing their beliefs as universal law. I think Hedges is right in the sense that, on the issues that the RR thinks it should have the exclusive right to create law on, there’s not really any possibility of rational or respectful debate.

    At the same time I think it’s important not to dehumanize anyone, including people with whom we strongly disagree. There are still areas we can find to connect – around family, love, general human experience, etc.

    • Lydia said

      You hit the nail on the head here, Grace.

      There’s a bright red line between believing something intolerant and acting on those beliefs.

      Regarding your last paragraph: I have extended family members who believe horrific, hateful things about LGBT people. (I’m bi.) It can be really hard to spend time around them sometimes because of this and because I feel like I’m the only one putting any effort into maintaining the relationship. If I responded to them the way they’ve acted in the past all heck would break loose.

      I do believe in loving your enemies and seeing the good in anyone…but sometimes it’s easier to bang my head against a brick wall for an hour than to have dinner with them. The connections are just so far and few between and the expectations so off-balance.

  6. SugarPop said

    Interesting statements and positions…

    From an idealogical / philosophical perspective, universal tolerance is a position I strongly agree with.

    Pragmatically, however, there is a huge difference between ideas and beliefs in the abstract to behaviours and actions in reality – I am happy to tolerate someone’s ideas, rhetoric etc, but not always happy to tolerate the behaviours the ensue, particularly if they adversely affect the wellbeing, safety, freedom and care of others.

    I am happy to tolerate, for example, ideas about extreme violence as depicted in films, fiction and documentary. But I am intolerant of actual murder, rape, child abuse and grievous bodily harm to to real people and children in the world.

  7. Lisa said

    First of all, you must apologize for my ignorance, but I’m new to some of these concepts. I was in Christian ministry (which was by all definitions a cult) for seven years and have been dealing with the effects of recovering for the last five. I’m actually not familiar with how the U.S. Christian Right is perceived world wide. I’m familiar with how it’s seen within our own country, and I’d say fascism is probably a correct (or close) term.

    Would it be considered the same world wide? Does the fact that U.S. Christian Right-wingers try to vote against gay marriage, against reproductive rights, etc. affect other nations and how so?

    In my experience blogging about my experience in a mega-church/cult, it seems Hedges is right: “Debate with the radical Christian Right is useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue.”

    When I’ve attempted to blog about my issues in those churches, debate has been useless and they don’t want a dialogue. My own attempt to write letters to the pastors who abused each of us has shown that they don’t want dialogue–they simply didn’t respond. They won’t respond unless they’re thrown in jail.

    However, in bringing up the issues you bring up here, and those I’ve brought up, it seems that there are always readers who are silently partaking in the conversation we bring up. They may not always agree, and they may be just beginning to question the fundamentalist teaching and way of thinking they’ve been taught, but some of them have opened up. Not all of them do, but a few do.

    I’m rather naive and idealistic in thinking that with education, some people may turn from their fundamentalist ways and “be saved.” 🙂 I guess I consider myself and hundreds of others who’ve been in my same shoes. It may have taken something traumatic and devastating to take us out of church, but once we’re out, we were able to rethink our values, and why we once believed the Bible.

    I hope education can reach fundamentalism. It’s difficult when many attend Christian schools and some of the deeply fundamentalist movements shun public radio, Internet, and television. The group I was in did so. I don’t have an answer for that; however, in my case, my parents were instrumental in helping me see that I was involved in an unhealthy group. There was also no one sharing their stories (like I am now) about the group I was involved with.

    I think these churches, groups and the Christian Right do something interesting to those who disagree, who’ve been hurt within their walls, and those who consider themselves Christian, but liberal: they SILENCE them. Silencing them by instilling fear, authoritarianism, and threats of punishment; silencing them by shouting that they are “just offended” and so not presenting valid arguments or points. I was silenced for many years and so were many others.

    • Bella Versace said

      I’ve been a Christian since 1976 and I’ve been a liberal since I understood what that means (I’d say 1956) and neither my pastor nor any other church official has ever tried to silence me, and my church, Assemblies of God, is pretty strict. What kind of church did you attend?

      • Lisa said

        Hi Bella Versace,
        I was a reverend in the Assemblies of God for several years. You’re right, it is strict.

        I think the “silencing” that I’m speaking to in particular is related to those who’ve left the church, who may or may not be Christian. Specifically, those who’ve experienced spiritual abuse.

    • SugarPop said

      Hi Lisa

      I was involved with a very conservative church in New Zealand when I was a teenager. I was required to wear a head covering and forbade to speak in church. When I began to question this, the answers I received, although sincerely presented, were woefully inadequate and singularly failed to satisfy me. I wasn’t silenced but I found I could not continue to participate in practices that seemed so out of integrity to me. I ultimately left the church and abandoned any connection to God and rejected all things biblical for many, many years. I am now, once more, open to possibility and hearing about God and the bible without prejudice. I’m heartened to learn about the liberal end of christianity, which I had no real exposure to until relatively recently. I find it very exciting to be amongst deeply thinking people who thoughfully and intelligently explore ideas of God and faith from far more rational and considered perspectives – although I still feel very cautious about it given my experience.

      I always found it difficult to reconcile many of the precepts and teachings in the bible with the behaviours and rationale of the fundmentalist christian view – they seemed often to be mutually exclusive, and I could never understand how that could be. It smacked of hypocrisy to me.

      • Lisa said

        Did your church make you cover your head and forbid you from speaking in church because you’re a woman and they were following the scriptures related to that? I think that’s a very unfortunate, but literal, interpretation of the Bible.

        For me, I interpreted the Bible so literally for years and that’s the way I thought was “right” so it’s difficult still for me to see that the Bible may be interpreted more liberally. However, I think if Christians don’t interpret it liberally, there’s a possibility of violence and/or oppression coming from it.

        I’m still pretty cautious, too, though it’s been extremely important for me to be around people who think differently than I once did. I’m currently in the “I discarded my faith” kind of place, and we’ll see where it takes me. I’m happy to not be tied down to guilt and forcing myself not to do something because it’s a “sin.”

        A few years ago, my Religious Studies professor gave me a list of books that reflect progressive Christianity. Here’s the list: http://www.mycultlife.com/resource/progressiveside/ I’ve read Marcus J. Borg and like him a lot. I haven’t read all the other books on that list, even though it’s on my site. 🙂

        • SugarPop said

          Yes – covering my head and not speaking in church were because I was female. The scriptures quoted to me backing up this position were in Timothy and Corinthians. And yes – very literal application of scripture, and it was that very literalness that made me thing “I smell a rat!” How come these areas were applied literally, while others not? This inconsistency rankled and made me quite cross – the rest, as they say, is history.

          I’ll take a look at your blog and the reading list – thanks! 🙂

  8. I don’t think one can sum discretion up in a comment on a post, but I’ll try.

    Some people are intolerant but harmless in that they have no ability to either hurt others or influence others to hurt others. These can be taught if they are teachable and left in peace (whatever peace the possess at least) if they are not.

    At the other end of the spectrum are those with great power to harm others and to influence others to do the same. We have a moral obligation to first try to teach them and second to use our own power to protect others from them. The various possibilities there require a book.

    In the middle are many variations on these two ends of the spectrum. Discretion allows one to identify the situation and design an appropriate response.

    The bottom line is that all power can be used to oppress or to nurture growth and safety for all. We must diligently seek to nurture all, but with discretion.

  9. Bella Versace said

    This is something I’ve pondered on myself. I’m leaning the other way, that we need to be tolerant of everyone, that liberal and liberty have the same root and we must push on for freedom for all. As far as the religious right, I am a Christian and find most “Christians” (culturally “Christian” IMO) vote one or two issues, and one is abortion, to the exclusion of all else. They need to be reminded that Jesus chastised the money changers but treated the prostitute with kindness.

    I love the thought you put into this post. We walk a fine line between allowing others the same freedoms we ourselves seek, and enabling those with an agenda that would take our freedoms from us.

    • Bella, thanks for contributing. It’s really nice to have someone who is both a “conservative” Christian and is “liberal” socially comment. It gives me hope.

  10. […] Should We Tolerate the Intolerant? (spritzophrenia.wordpress.com) […]

  11. Kai said

    You’re just afraid of taking a moral stand for something. Seriously, wake up! The Right does say this about the Left and like pussies the Left just rolls over and lets them wreak havoc in this country. It doesn’t matter if they don’t like it. If you are right then stand up for it. If that means physical violence that’s the price to pay for defending peace sometimes. But it shouldn’t need to get to that point to begin with. It only has because we have tolerated their toxic ways long enough. The difference between the intolerant and the tolerant taking a moral stand against them is wisdom. Intellectually you’ll only falter over your own logic and inability to justify why they are even wrong to begin with. Wisdom is how you know what sets you apart and gives you the moral authority. There is no easy way about it since it’s not hard for any old fool to feel self righteous. We lack any modern day examples so it’s next to impossible for most people in this society to even know the difference when they see it.

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