Friday, February 27, 2009

Tolerance and Its Limits

I haven't alluded to my boy Karl Popper recently. Popper wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies, in which he argues (among other things) that we cannot tolerate any values which themselves are intolerant. Consequently, it's okay to send fascists to jail, because once they get into power, the first thing they do is limit dissent. Popper was (in my view not coincidentally) also the first person to explicitly set to paper the empirical falsification method that today we call science. Many of Popper's students went on to become influential themselves; you may even have heard of some of them, like George Soros. I can't help but compare the Popper-Soros relationship to that between Aristotle and Alexander. That is, a welll-known philosopher trains a student; even if that student contributes only modestly to philosophy, he has a huge impact on the world at large, enabled by his ability to act decisively according to the principles and clear, confident cognition enabled by his training. One difference of course is that Aristotle probably remembered Alexander better than Popper apparently remembered Soros, but I digress.

There are countless examples of assaults on the open society, but we should expect an increase on one form of assault along with the rise of large immigrant subcultures in wealthy nations, allowed ironically by the increasing openness of those nations. I'm afraid our efforts to remain open have given us some confused instincts. We started to the hear the word diversity in the American mainstream in the 1980s, and toward the end of that decade, that's when what I call the poor man's Derrida argument started to surface: "We're both right; there's no one right answer".

However, in my experience, quite often (even usually) when people say this, there is in fact just one right answer, but there is a conflict of values. People are uncomfortable with conflicts of values, and are often poor critical thinkers who in addition can only take criticism personally. Given those handicaps, consequently the only way out of a discussion in which there is a clear clash of values is to say "We're both right," and hope that no one notices any naked emperors. As people continue to move around the globe in the pursuit of happiness, increasingly those conflicts are ones between different sets of cultural values.

Atheists (and honest self-aware people in general) run into this all the time. It's perhaps most flagrantly illustrated when there's a panel discussion on religion at a college between Christian and Muslim clerics. We witness a nice civilized debate of men (almost always men) nodding sagely at each other and mumbling agreeably about how all paths lead to God, when both of their books explicitly exhort him to kill the other man. An immediate objection is "Would you prefer the alternative?" and an answer is "You mean people not turning their lives over to books demanding the murder of human beings that think differently? Yes! Duh!" I also think this is one reason why when atheists give our two cents, we're called intolerant, hateful, or angry; people have been lulled into this mindless play-nice relativism, and they confuse criticism with censorship and intolerance. That is, just because I think something you believe is stupid, that doesn't mean I'm going to say you're a bad person, unpatriotic, or try to have you thrown out of the country or arrested. I'm just going to tell you that what you believe is stupid, and I don't have to pretend to respect it.

We're often very hesitant to criticize someone from another culture whose values differ from our own because there is a long sordid history of one set of values being rammed down everyone else's throats. This is where we become confused, and prone to tolerate intolerance. If you ever read Robert Frank's Choosing the Right Pond, he has a fantastic passage about Tongan pony-eaters in Salt Lake City. He wisely implies more general questions by asking about the difficulties inherent in pony-eaters coexisting with non-pony-eaters. Then again, there's a difference between someone who eats different foods than you (even if it's a pony, or nattoo*) and someone who defends honor killing or censorship. And of course it's precisely the political traditions that owe the most to openness that have the most trouble bringing themselves to criticize non-mainstream cultures and religions. For example, the mystery of why Ayaan Hirsi Ali (look for her in the links on the right) is not more widely hailed as a feminist hero is one example - though she has personal experience of the horrors to women of a patriarchal religion, that religion happens to be Islam, and there are elements in Western politics that find criticism of Islam distasteful. In truth, after 8 years of an evangelical president, you can't entirely blame Americans for suspecting that all anti-Muslim criticism has as its obvious subtext "and we should make them be Christians". Or in the case of Ann Coulter, it's supertext.

This is exactly why atheists are in a great position. We can criticize brutal bloodthirsty religions like Islam without suspicion of our true motives; and in fact, as I've written before, this gets us psychologically under the door in discussions with Christians in a way that few other issues can. After all, it's 2009. We have not only the old-time players like politicians and priests but scientists and wealthy French Muslims with bad photo editors engaged in a global debate about the origin of our values. If you live in a major city, chances are your neighbors don't believe the same things you do, but you still have to decide how to live your life and what you'll put up with. Mindless relativism won't fly anymore, because it's feeding the tolerance of intolerance. And the intolerant, wherever they come from, will always take what they can get.

*Just kidding. Never any excuse for nattoo. I declare jihad against fermented soy products.

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