Irony (and not the Alanis Morissette kind)

D.A. Carson said something in a book that I read recently that continues to echo in my head.  Describing the post-modern emphasis on tolerance, Carson made the point that tolerance presupposes disagreement.  In other words, you can’t “tolerate” something unless you happen to think it’s wrong.  We don’t “tolerate” those things that we agree with.  We “tolerate” those things that we disagree with by conceeding that, though we disagree with them, they have the right to exist.  Summarizing the beliefs of the French philosopher Voltaire, his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall penned the famous quote:  “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  This is “tolerance”, an ideal on which much of the American notion of freedom is based.  Unfortunately, it becomes nonsense in the modern understanding of tolerance.

In contemporary parlance, “tolerance” means something like:  all ideas are equal and no idea is inherently more right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, than any other.  While it is true that this notion might reduce conflict (why fight about an idea that is no more or less meaningfull than any other?), it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “tolerant.”  This might be “accepting” or even “inclusive”, but it is not “tolerant.”

Ironically, it seems to me that genuine “tolerance” – i.e. the willingness to listen to and even support the right to speak of those with whom you disagree – is more respectful than the contemporary perversion of it.  Which is more respectful of someone, to say “talk all you want because nothing you say can actually mean anything to anyone but you” or “let me hear what you think so that I can evaluate whether or not you’re on to something”?  The latter presupposes that someone might have something to say which is meaningful and significant while the former presupposes that letting this person speak won’t make any difference anyway.

I was just coming back from speaking at an event and I sat next to a college philosophy major who believed that there was no truth and that no ideas actually described things the way they actually are.  This is a nonsense position, of course, since if someone says “No idea can actually be true [i.e. describe things the way they actually are]” then they are proposing an idea that they believe actually describes things the way they are, but that’s another issue entirely.  This student and I talked for several hours, but as we were landing I looked her in the eye and I said, “You know, I think you’re wrong.  But here’s the thing:  I’ve been listening to you because I think your ideas matter.  I think you’re very bright and because I think it’s at least possible that your ideas are actually right, I think you’re worth listening to.  Having heard you out, I happen to disagree with you, but ironically, my disagreement is actually a kind of respect.  By thinking that your ideas matter, I think you matter.  But if your ideas don’t actually mean anything, if they can’t possibly match up with the ways things actually are…then your ideas are meaningless and, by extension, so are you.  But I don’t think that.  I think your ideas matter and, by extension, I think you matter.  I think you’re wrong, but I only bother saying that because I think you – and your ideas – count.”

Of course, I’m sure I sound more eloquent here  than it came out live, but that’s essentially what I said.  How did she respond?  She teared up and raced off the plane so fast that I saw her go back later to get her bags that she’d left in the overhead bin.  I pray God continues to work on her obviously broken heart.

But do you see what I mean?  Tolerance, at least in the modern sense, isn’t respectful.  It’s disrespectful.  Ironically, genuine tolerance…the kind that presupposes disagreement…is far more respectful of persons than the modern version could ever hope to be.