‘Tolerance is the basis of all our freedoms’

In a free society, everyone, even those we consider repugnant, must have the liberty to express themselves and their ideas.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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On 2 October, Frank Furedi introduced a discussion on What does tolerance mean today? at the Manchester Salon, as part of the Battle of Ideas festival. His introductory remarks are published below.

About three years ago, I was giving a lecture in Amsterdam. In the course of the lecture, I told the audience that if you believed in freedom, if you believed in freedom of speech, it meant that you should be able to say whatever you wanted and society did not have the right to censor the content of whatever it is you wanted to say.

An example I gave was the way that in many parts of Europe, Holocaust denial is deemed to be a crime. Even though a lot of my family perished in the Holocaust, I still feel it was totally wrong to suppress an idea bureaucratically. It is far better that it be debated, argued over and ultimately discredited. And at that point this guy gets up, puts up his hand, and says: ‘I’m really glad you said that Professor Furedi. I’m a Muslim and I too think it’s wrong that a Holocaust should be denied. The only thing I think should be censored is when someone like the prophet Muhammad is criticised or questioned. That should not be allowed.’

A week later, I was in Berlin on the same lecture tour, and a Jewish person got up to say almost the opposite: that it was perfectly okay to criticise the prophet Muhammad, but it was totally immoral that the Holocaust should be denied. And that’s really when I decided to write my book on the issue of tolerance. It became very clear to me that in many parts of Europe, tolerance basically meant tolerating the ideas that you agree with, but at the same time being intolerant of the ideas you disagree with. I thought it was important to explain why it is that European societies find it so difficult genuinely to be tolerant.

Tolerance is a very difficult accomplishment, it’s something you have to struggle with. To be genuinely free, and to be committed to freedom, not just on a rhetorical level but in real-life terms, is not an easy project to carry out. And I think that one of the problems we have in our society is that we are continually finding it difficult to be truly tolerant. We always find good reasons as to why some views are beyond the pale: they cannot be said, they cannot be expressed, while others are totally fine to communicate.

Recently, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, there was a very interesting exchange in the aftermath of all those Muslim riots about the American film that criticised the prophet Muhammad. The presenter, John Humphries, was talking to a Muslim speaker, and he put it to him that in the UK we believe in free speech, and yet we feel intimidated and scared to criticise the prophet Muhammad because Muslims react by burning down embassies and killing people. The Muslim speaker, who was defending some of the people who had been rioting and demonstrating, pointed out that in the UK there are, in fact, limits on free speech, like criticising troops in Afghanistan or speech that incites hatred of religion.

So, a Muslim speaker was defending the intolerant demonstrators for going around killing people and beating people up, but his was the same moral claim as that made by John Humphries; they were equally intolerant. We may believe that our society is liberal and tolerant, but when we scratch the surface, we always find good reasons why we shouldn’t listen to somebody we really dislike.

An objection I hear frequently is: ‘Why should we tolerate intolerance?’ The assumption is that tolerating views that you don’t agree with is like a gift, an act of kindness. It suggests we’re doing people a favour by tolerating their view. My argument is that tolerance is vital to us, to you and I, because it’s actually the presupposition of all our freedoms.

You cannot be free in any meaningful sense unless there is a recognition that we are free to act on our beliefs, we’re free to think what we want and express ourselves freely. Unless we have that freedom, all those other freedoms that we have on paper mean nothing.

Throughout most of human history, tolerance was not even seen as a virtue. In fact, until about the seventeenth century, the main virtue was to be intolerant. And most philosophers, for example Catholic and other religious thinkers, actually boasted about the fact that society was intolerant of any disrespect for religion. To be tolerant was seen as a sign of moral weakness. Only the really weak, pathetic individuals could be tolerant. Why would you tolerate a view that you held to be abhorrent?

The first person in the world who put forward an argument for tolerance was the liberal philosopher John Locke. I give his brilliant essay, On Tolerance, to all my students and friends to read whenever I see people being a little intolerant. But even Locke gave two cases in which we should not be tolerant. Firstly, tolerance could not extend to Catholics in England, because Catholics were not loyal to the king, they were only loyal to a foreign power: the pope. He also said that there could not be tolerance for atheists, because atheists are loyal to nobody. So even Locke had reservations as to how far tolerance could go.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that some of these ideas about tolerance were further developed. For example, you had with John Stuart Mill the idea that people not only had freedom of conscience, the freedom of belief, but also freedom of speech. Freedom of conscience meant nothing, he argued, unless you had the freedom to communicate that belief. The only way that your moral autonomy, your integrity as a human being, could be realised was through the capacity to speak out freely about what you believed and to take responsibility for the words that you expressed.

For Mill, it was far better to allow people to express erroneous opinions, and even lies, than to suppress them. Because it’s through having to struggle with erroneous opinions and lies that real clarity is gained, that individuals manage to work out for themselves what is right and what is wrong. Nothing can be worse than passively accepting an opinion that someone gives you, and merely repeating what society holds to be right. If all you do is mouth what society tells you to say, it becomes entirely external to yourself, you really are not a human agent.

These points still stand today. If we are truly to be free, moral beings, then we must demand tolerance for all – even for those who hold views with which we strongly disagree.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here. He will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas keynote session The 21st-century case for freedom at the Barbican on Sunday 21 October.

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Topics Politics


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