Tolerance is very likely the supreme liberal virtue. It is the virtue in which liberals themselves take the greatest pride, and it is the virtue of which they say their enemies are most deficient. Yet in all other moral systems that I am aware of, tolerance is, at most, a minor virtue. Indeed it is a suspect virtue because it is so often a sham, a fraud and a cheat: a painted strumpet flouncing about in cheap finery.
Tolerance has traditionally been seen as a minor virtue because few men are actually in a position to show true tolerance. In order for a man to show true tolerance he must meet two conditions: (a) he must disapprove of the behavior, opinion or class of humanity that he tolerates, and (b) he must have the power to stop that behavior, repress that opinion, or oppress that class. Lacking (a) his supposed tolerance is really indifference; lacking (b) it is really resignation (1). Indifference and resignation disguised as tolerance are what I have called painted strumpets.
I truly tolerate the noise my children make when I am reading (when I do tolerate it) because I meet both of these conditions. I would prefer quiet and I have the power to command quiet (if only by banishing them to the backyard), but I do on occasion voluntarily acquiesce to a tumultuous state of affairs. And when I do, I am tolerant. I would not exhibit tolerance if I submitted to my children’s tumult because I was indifferent to the noise, much less if I delighted in it. Nor would I exhibit tolerance if I had no power to stop it.
A great deal of liberals’ boasted tolerance is, in fact, indifference. In most cases I’d venture to say they do not tolerate homosexuality, for instance, since a person’s sexual behavior is for them neither here nor there. Indeed they will often begin testimonials to sexual tolerance with the words, “I do not care what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom.” This is indifference, not tolerance. To truly tolerate homosexuality, one must disapprove of the behavior, prefer that it did not take place.
And of course one must have the power to stop it, or at least seriously inconvenience those who would engage in it. Very few people possess this power, and so most who meet condition (a) fail to meet condition (b). They are resigned, not tolerant.
I’d venture to say that almost no one actually tolerates homosexuality in the United States nowadays. We are either indifferent or resigned.
When faulting their enemies for deficient tolerance, Liberals are wont to confuse (or perhaps obfuscate) the question with pronouncements against discrimination and in favor of equality. This only confirms that their conception of tolerance is bizarre (or perhaps dishonest). As traditionally defined, tolerance cannot be shown until one has made a discriminatory judgment against a behavior, opinion, or class of humanity. If I do not discriminate, I am indifferent, and this, as we have seen, is a painted strumpet.
The argument for equality is, of course, an argument against power. The person making it is either informing me that I have no power, or advising me that to exercise the power that I do have would be shameful, dastardly and mean. But if I have no power, or doubt my right to the power I have, I am merely resigned. I may say it is winsome tolerance hanging on my arm, but it is really a painted strumpet.
When faulting their enemies for deficient tolerance, liberals are also wont to confuse tolerance and what the older morality called magnanimity, which is to say “big heartedness.” A magnanimous or big-hearted man is a man of generous affection. He does not love indiscriminately, but there is room in his heart for a large and varied slice of humanity. He is also more or less free of the vice of spite, and so is “open hearted” to former enemies, once they have stopped being enemies.
Magnanimity is a major virtue. Each of us should cultivate it insofar as we can. But it is not tolerance and it should not be mistaken for tolerance, because when it is, magnanimity and tolerance destroy each other.
No matter how large my heart, it cannot contain all behaviors, opinions and classes of humanity. This is for the very simple reason that some of these behaviors, opinions and classes of humanity are at war with each other, and with me. And no man should admit war into his heart. If he does, it will cease to be a large heart containing many friends. It will sink from a banquet of friends to a brothel teaming with painted strumpets.
But this does not mean that a man must make war on everything and everyone that he does not, indeed cannot, love. There is a space between love and wrath, and it is in this space that we have, from time to time, opportunities to exhibit the minor virtue of tolerance.
(1) Andreas Kinneging, The Geography of Good and Evil: Philosophical Investigations, trans. Ineke Hardy (Wilmington, Del.: I.S.I. Books, 2009), pp. 91-102.