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  • Toleration and Democracy

    In Europe, tolerance is used as the rationale both for allowing traditional Muslim garments like the hijab or niqab, and for banning them. In America, religious tolerance has become both the justification for marriage equality and justification for opposing it, with Kim Davis as the poster child for the latter group. Logically, the same word should not be able to mean opposing concepts, so one of the groups in both of these examples has to be wrong.

    Or maybe not. The tension over this issue derives from different interpretations of what “tolerance” actually means. The issue is more than semantic, as these examples show, and the problem of defining tolerance was the topic of a talk given by Rainer Forst, a professor in political theory at the Goethe University of Frankfurt in Germany.

    Speaking in front of a packed audience in Baker Hall, Forst debunked some misconceptions about tolerance. Tolerance, though having existed in various forms since ancient times, was developed as a political concept by thinkers like John Locke, and became steadily more embraced over the course of the Enlightenment.

    Yet, despite its origins in the Enlightenment, many of the thinkers who lived during the time actually thought poorly of the idea of tolerance. Kant complained about the “arrogance of tolerance”. The comte de Mirabeau, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, thought that tolerance “smacked of tyranny”. Thomas Paine and Goethe also found the concept of tolerance problematic. In other words, tolerance was not and still is not an obvious or given thing, now nor in the past.

    According to Forst, there are three major components to tolerance. The first is objection—the people doing the tolerating have to actively dislike what is being done (as Forst put it, “Otherwise, it’s just indifference.”). The second is acceptance—the realization that despite it being something personally undesirable, that it is still something worth allowing. Finally, the third is rejection—no matter how tolerant, societies have to draw a line in order to maintain some order.

    The debates about tolerance often involve where to draw that line of rejection. For Forst, the formula is simple—the line of acceptance starts where certain people object to something for personal, or ethical, reasons: eating pork, drinking and smoking, or sex outside marriage. The line of rejection starts where the practice becomes objectionable for universal, or moral, reasons: rape, murder, and arson.

    Finally, there are two basic conceptions of tolerance: permission tolerance and respect tolerance. Permission tolerance is, as its name suggests, freedom from persecution granted by the ruling authority to the minority group. It relies on the benevolence of the ruling authority, and along with the carrot of tolerance, it carries the stick of complacency—the minority group is forced to obey the ruling authority, since if the rulers can grant tolerance, they can always take it away. This was the dominant type of tolerance for most of history, and it was this kind of tolerance that thinkers like Kant and Goethe objected to.

    Respect tolerance is far less clear-cut, since it is not granted by any authority. Rather, it arises from the coexistence of multiple viewpoints and beliefs among a diverse citizenry. Through this exposure, a mutual respect arises among the population that overcomes the objections they might hold towards each other’s specific beliefs. It is far more nebulous a concept, far harder to foster, but for Forst, also far more sustainable and meaningful for a democratic society.

    For Forst, the criterion of whether to ban something is whether the moral case against it is strong enough to override the moral case against banning it. This is an imprecise science. The questions involving where lines of tolerance should be drawn will continue, as people will continue to disagree, but disagreements are a necessary part of a functioning democracy. For Forst, the first step to creating a more authentic tolerance rests in knowledge of what it really is, as more than just a superficial buzzword.

    This event was made possible through the June B. and Bryan J. Zwan Visiting Distinguished Scholar Endowment.

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