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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tolerating the intolerant

Having argued that we should not view Islam as essentially intolerant, I now ask, "What if we did?" Or, more generally, what if we identify any particular sect as essentially illiberal and intolerant?

It's all very well for sects A, B, C, and D to draw the conclusion that sect E wants no part of extending liberal tolerance to the others, but that doesn't automatically entail that it's a good idea to start persecuting sect E with fire and the sword. On the contrary, sect E's day-to-day activities are likely to be relatively harmless, and we could not justify criminalising them. The speech from sect E's members will still have value - there are good Millian reasons to extend freedom of speech even to the intolerant (for one thing, it's good for us to have our views challenged). Besides, there will be grey areas; the truth of the matter is that many sects show signs of intolerance, and perhaps none can be thought of as entirely pure if we apply the standards I've been using very strictly. Some public figures, such as Cardinal Pell, live in the grey areas - recall that the Catholic hierarchy gives lip service to a separation of Church and State and claims that its miserable morality - no contraception, no divorce, no stem cell research, no gay rights - has a basis in reason.

It may be that, in practice, there is little more that we should do about sect E, other than complaining and becoming distrustful. However, the overall political circumstances do shift if we come to the conclusion that certain sects (sects that are not so marginal as to merit passing over as irrelevant) are subverting the general ethos of liberal tolerance, or if there is pervasive low-level subversion of that ethos from a variety of sects. I think that, in those circumstances, we'd merely engage in some consciousness raising, but probably take no official action. The consciousness raising might make a member of sect E unelectable as a member of parliament, but there would be no law forbidding her from standing for public office.

But maybe there's more that we could do without abandoning our own values. In Turkey, a political party representing sect E would probably be banned. I don't propose that we'd go so far in Australia or other Western countries, and it probably would not be constitutional in any event.

This conundrum may suggest why it is a good reason to have constitutional provisions to protect us from the sect E's of the world. We may have to extend them a lot of tolerance in practice, even if they haven't signed up to make it mutual, but a strong Bill of Rights could severely limit what they will ever actually achieve.

I'm not sure of the answer to this one, so I'll throw the question open.


Anonymous said...

Imagine a sect which for the sake of discussion we call fraterni exclusivi* that didn't vote (a grey area legally, you have to enrol, but if you aren't then you don't get prosecuted) but had the ear of some of the highest politicians of the land and ploughed money into getting politicians to their liking (re)elected. And spread negative propaganda against candidates they see as not holding their view, even spreading lies. This group may be small, but have a disproportianate amount of power or influence in a democracy where supposedly one person = one vote. Some serious consciouness raising would need to be done then. Also some serious election donation law changes too.
I wonder if such a group, which eschews voting for religious reasons and yet buys power is a danger to democracy and should be made to vote and be barred from greasing up politicians. As much as politicians don't want their dodgy money declared. I don't think it would be good to persecute them though only apply an equal standard.
*Terrible latin I know :)

Russell Blackford said...

We're talking about the Exclusive Brethren here?

Russell Blackford said...

Well, obviously we are. I don't know that there's really a lot we can do about that particular fraternity except keep the glare of publicity on them.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the exclusive Bretheren. My attempt at humourous intrigue didn't probably come across well. It seemed cute at the time. :)
I agree with your suggestion. I reckon that we need to keep the spotlight on them and the politicians who gladly, but clandestinely, accept there support

Russell Blackford said...

Spotlight it is - but it's a good example.

I guess my overall point is that not everything is solved even if we do identify some particular sect as intolerant, and as standing, by choice, outside of the magical Lockean circle. We can't suddenly abandon religious tolerance just because of that; we wouldn't want to go back to a 17th-century free-for-all to see who get so persecute everyone else, just because some sects turn out to be intolerant.

Mind you, if enough significant sects were intolarant enough, in the new 21st-century reality that we face, all bets might be off. Though I disagreed with Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "war with Islam" point a couple of posts ago, she does make one very telling point in her Reason interview: our constitutional provisions and political principles all have histories. They are justified on the basis of compromises reached and lessons learned; they are not locked in stone forever, however much circumstances might ever change.

Anonymous said...

They are justified on the basis of compromises reached and lessons learned; they are not locked in stone forever, however much circumstances might ever change.
And this is the possibly the problem we face. We've been tolerant, tolerance has worked, so we tolerate the next applicant to society or a group that feels confident in expressing its muscle. The trouble is when the group doesn't agree to the deal. Then we risk problems.
This is not to justify some jingoistic pogrom or say damn them for their (perceived) intransigence. I just don't think you can have a (Lockean) deal, unless all agree to the deal. I think that we can demand that a group who partakes of society abides by the deal. But how to do that?

Russell Blackford said...

I think we have to be realistic
about something like this. We're just not going to go down the path of persecuting certain sects for not being sufficiently tolerant - there will always be sects, or individuals, that try to test the envelope. One thing we can do is be very strong on hard-won political principles such as freedom of speech, maintenance of the harm principle (insist that actions be significantly and directly harmful before action is taken to suppress them - if the harm is insignificant it should attract regulation at most; if it is merely indirect, it is usually just a matter for amelioroation or education).

However, what we can also do is insist that tolerance, freedom of speech, etc., do not entail that all views must be equally respected and given weight in the democratic process. Manifestly intolerant views can be allowed, but discounted. If there is immediate danger that they will be acted on, some stronger action might be justiable (banning Nazi organisation in the 1930s and 1940s may have been needed in those circumstances).

More generally, we need strategies that all moderates can live with. I wouldn't go closing Muslim schools holus bolus, but I do question why we are funding religious schools, I have no problem with the idea that liberalism forces the sects to soften, as well as allowing them all to survive, and if we must take steps to assure that all children are exposed to tolerant ideas, thus offending the most intolerant and dogmatic sects, then so be it, I think. It does seem to me that there's a lot we can do short of bringing backl the bad old days of the Thirty Years' War.

clodhopper said...

What scares me is that religionists will disguise intolerence very well until they aquire secular power and then WHAM!

I sometimes feel like asking them (our Islamic neighbours) to either sign up to our western values or otherwise to leave the country.

But are the moderates really speaking out effectively?