September 16, 2011 10:03 pm

On Tolerance

Veteran intellectual pugilist Frank Furedi makes an attack on tolerance without engagement

The battle for tolerance is part of an endless struggle for freedom.” These are suitably fighting words to conclude veteran intellectual pugilist Frank Furedi’s latest polemic. Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent, but he entered public life waging class war as a founder of the Revolutionary Communist party and is now often called the “guru” of the party’s descendent, The Institute of Ideas.

Many observers mutter about hidden agendas to explain the morphing of Furedi and his comrades from a Trotskyite vanguard party into a seemingly libertarian think-tank, indignant at the merest sniff of the nanny state and defensive of high art and learning against charges of elitism. However, the continuities are plain to see. The key members of this group have always been fiercely anti-statist believers in human beings’ ability to divine the truth for themselves through the power of reason. Against this backdrop, Furedi’s attack on what he calls “the banalisation of toleration” makes perfect sense.

Furedi certainly lands plenty of punches. His central point is that we should tolerate things we find despicable, stupid or even dangerous, not because we like them, but because “without the freedom to err people can never acquire the freedom to discover truths”. Even the most well-founded of beliefs become mere prejudices if their bases are not challenged and tested.

Tolerance, however, has come to mean something much more insipid: a refusal to make any judgment at all. Respect for reason and the autonomy of the individual is deformed into a respect for whatever people believe, for whatever reason they believe it. Values and beliefs come to stand outside rational scrutiny, as reflections of our social and cultural identities, not the products of rational deliberation. This has the effect of locking people into identities they were born into, lumbering them with values that are not seen as a matter of choice. In the name of respect for difference, freedom to think for oneself is thereby diminished, as belief becomes a matter of group membership, not individual conscience.

The diagnosis contains a great deal of truth. Furedi’s analysis, however, leans too heavily on an unashamedly fundamentalist Enlightenment view of human beings as rational autonomous individuals without qualification. While it is reasonable to propose that we should do nothing that undermines our rational or moral autonomy, it is quite another to act as though that autonomy were absolute. For instance, Furedi rejects the “fatalistic assumption” that children are born with different learning styles, and mocks research suggesting that there is some genetic basis for people’s tendency to be liberal or conservative. Such claims might offend our feelings of autonomy, but we cannot just dismiss them. Only by acknowledging and understanding the psychological forces beyond our free, rational control can we mitigate their effects on what and how we think.

Furedi, however, doesn’t engage deeply with what might be true in his opponents’ positions, as though trying to give due credit would be just another symptom of wimpish liberal respect for difference. He is right to say that we should not restrict freedom of speech to stop “mere offence”, as Mill put it. But this ignores completely the argument that we don’t just say things with words, we do things, too. Sexist talk in the boardroom can undermine or silence female colleagues, not just threaten them. Prejudiced questions in an interview can prevent someone from getting a job.

But ultimately, Furedi’s more than merely tolerable book perfectly illustrates his main point. It should be welcomed not because it is entirely right, but because tolerance does matter, and received ideas about what it means need to be challenged fiercely and intelligently, even if also wrongly.

Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta)

On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence, by Frank Furedi, Continuum, RRP £16.99, 224 pages

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