January 1, 2011

THE WAR ON MEANING:

The truth about tolerance: Frank Furedi, author of the forthcoming On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence, takes to task Tariq Ramadan, who wants to bury the Enlightenment virtue of toleration and replace it with recognition. (Frank Furedi, spiked review of books)

Ramadan’s claim that people do not want to be tolerated is another way of saying that they don’t want to be judged – but they do want to be affirmed. In his own way, Ramadan gives voice to the Western therapeutic imagination’s estrangement from making value judgments. Contemporary Western culture’s refusal to judge goes hand-in-hand with its celebration of the therapeutic value of affirmation and boosting self-esteem. This sensibility inexorably leads to the affirmation of individual and group identities, an act which has become something of a sacred duty in recent years. It is this gesture of granting respect-on-demand which constitutes the real insult these days, since it does not actually take people seriously. It is about making people feel good about themselves rather than seriously engaging with them – and that is the real form that patronising ‘intellectual charity’ takes today.

The obvious contradiction between toleration and affirmation means that contemporary culture and society are increasingly wary of the virtue of tolerance. Within multiculturalist doctrine, the principal strategy for overcoming this contradiction is to expand the meaning of tolerance so that it ends up encompassing the idea of acceptance and respect. And this semantic extension of tolerance, so that it takes on board the idea of uncritical recognition, transforms its very meaning; it turns a key Enlightenment virtue into an act of unconditional acceptance.

Ramadan is at least consistent. In his desire to uphold the values of recognition and respect, he rejects the virtue of tolerance altogether rather than seeking to give it a new meaning. He consigns it to the dustbin of ‘cultural domination’, insisting that ‘when it comes to relations between free and equal human beings, autonomous and independent nations, or civilisations, religions and cultures, appeals for the tolerance of others are no longer relevant’. Why? Because ‘when we are on equal terms, it is no longer a matter of conceding tolerance, but of rising above that and educating ourselves to respect others’ (p48). It is worth noting that the traditional liberal idea of tolerance also upholds the notion of respect – not, however, the idea of unconditional affirmation, as respect is understood today, but the liberal notion of respecting people’s potential for exercising moral autonomy.

It is precisely because Ramadan is unsympathetic to the idea of individual autonomy and moral independence that he can casually dismiss tolerance as the intellectual charity of the powerful. Tolerance is anything but charity. It refuses to suppress beliefs and views that are judged to be erroneous because it recognises that it is through the exercise of individual autonomy that greater clarity about the truth can be gained. In the end, everyone gains from toleration, since it is through exposure to conflicting views that society acquires certain insights and experiences an intellectual and moral flourishing.

Ramadan’s rejection of tolerance is driven by hostility towards the idea of critical judgment. But how can a ‘Quest for Meaning’ proceed without a capacity to judge? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Ramadan’s exhortation to ‘Judge Not’ is about evading making serious choices between different ways of life. ‘Avoiding Meaning’ would perhaps have been a better title for this book.


Of course, the notion that tolerance ought to be a central value of society is itself judgmental.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 1, 2011 8:37 AM
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