The Mysterious Paradox of Liberal Tolerance

For many years, every time I saw a “Coexist” bumper sticker, I would get perturbed in my spirit, and I didn’t really know why. It wasn’t that I felt criticized. Particularly speaking, I’m an open and forgiving sort. I love discourse and conversation, and the command to “coexist” with people who disagreed with me didn’t seem to have any teeth. I was already doing that.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized exactly why this bumper sticker is so patently false in concept and sentiment. To tell others to “coexist” indicates, for one, that you do not think they are coexisting. But, also, it is in itself an imperative, even a religious imperative. Apparently, the people who display these bumper stickers on their cars have not thought this out.

This might make a good bumper sticker in response (if it weren’t so wordy of course): “Coexist is a moral imperative. Perhaps you should learn to get along with people without telling them what to do.” Which amounts to, “Why don’t you coexist?” Ironically, the inclusion of all these current religious symbols indicates that various religions already are coexisting, at least in the strictest sense of the word. It is the very “tolerant” person driving around with a one word sermon pasted to his bumper that feels most compelled to tell everyone else how they should think and what they should believe.

The very foundation of liberal tolerance is therefore a paradox, to put it graciously. It might, perhaps more accurately, be called a “self-contradiction.” Moral philosophers have been talking about it for quite some time. Even as far back as the nascent years of the American Republic in 1783, Ezra Stiles, then president of Yale, preached a sermon to the Connecticut General Assembly (But what about separation of church and state?!), in which he criticized the so-called open-mindedness of the “Coexist” faction of his own day—the Deists. His words are worth repeating:

I pity from my heart . . . those who are caught in the vortex, and are captivated with the wily satirical delusory and deficient reasonings of deism. Elevated with the pride of mental enlargement, of a supposed untrammeled understanding, they ascend aloft above the clouds of prejudices into the Pisgah heights, from whence they fancy that they see all religions the same, that is, equally nothing but priestcraft and artificial error. Whereupon they complement themselves as endowed with a superiority of discernment in morals, with high sensibility, sentimental and liberal ideas, and charm themselves with other fine self-applied diction, which in truth only clothes the tedium of weariness of half-discussed unfinished inquiries; or perhaps the hope that at worst the want of certain knowledge may pass with God, if there is any, as a sufficient excuse for some of the doubtful levities of life.

I’m afraid many modern skeptics may not be educated enough to realize just how insulting that was. Let me put it in plainer terms: Moral skeptics and irreligious people are not freed from morality or religion by their skepticism and supposed “open-mindedness.” They are in fact most to be pitied because they are freed from the virtues of religion while still retaining its vices—self-righteousness and hypocrisy. The modern “tolerant” liberal is only tolerant in broad terms. When it comes to specifics, he still holds his own version of ethics and morality to be higher and better than any other. That is the paradox and irony of both the “coexist” bumper sticker and the immutable modern doctrine of tolerance. In a sense, what it is saying is, “My irreligious stance is better and more reasonable than all religions. All religious people should therefore follow my moral and religious code. They should all become active members in the church of me.”

Liberal tolerance is not just broad ideologically; it is also broad practically. Though it apparently extends to all humankind universally, it dissolves in the presence of even one particular dissenter. C. S. Lewis pegged it when he described the demonic doctrine of general good will toward men. The following is, of course, from the perspective of a fictional demon, though its effects are clearly seen in reality:

[Humans] are creatures of that miserable sort who loudly proclaim that torture is too good for their enemies and then give tea and cigarettes to the first wounded German pilot who turns up at the back door. Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train. Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable qualities inward into the Will. It is only in so far as they reach the will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us. (I don’t, of course, mean what the patient mistakes for his will, the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy calls the Heart.) All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from our Father’s house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets there. [Emphasis added]

That is an apt description of liberal tolerance: it positively raves about general love for humankind, the celebration of diversity, and the acceptance of all differences. But when it comes to specifics, it is even more close-minded and malicious toward diverse opinions and practices than any rabid religious fundamentalism. Aside from making a person feel better about themselves, general tolerance is ultimately and practically useless. I would much rather be tolerant specifically than seem tolerant generally. General tolerance purports to serve all of mankind. In the end, it serves only the “tolerant” person’s own ego.

There are many historical examples of liberal tolerance faltering in particulars, but one that is presently fresh in my mind comes from Gone With the Wind. In it, Scarlett O’Hara muses about the relationship of the Northern abolitionists to the Southern slaves. This is a classic example of Screwtape humanitarianism, and this particular brand is still alive and well actually:

What damnably queer people Yankees are! Those women [Yankee women who had just told Scarlett they wouldn’t trust a “negro” to be a nurse to their children, and who had insulted Scarlett’s black chauffeur, Uncle Peter, to his face] seemed to think that because Uncle Peter was black, he had no ears to hear with and no feelings, as tender as their own, to be hurt. . . . They didn’t understand negroes or the relations between the negroes and their former masters. Yet they fought a war to free them. And having freed them, they didn’t want to have anything to do with them, except to use them to terrorize Southerners. They didn’t like them, didn’t trust them, didn’t understand them, and yet their constant cry was that Southerners didn’t know how to get along with them.

In other words, the myth of liberal tolerance, open-mindedness, and good will has been going on for years, and many people have been taken in by it. It is likely that, in fact, the most deceived people of all about liberal tolerance are liberals themselves.

So, next time someone tells you that you’re close-minded and intolerant, and that you need to learn to “coexist,” I hope you have the forbearance and grace to show that person real love by attempting, as futile as the attempt may be, to disabuse them of their self-delusions.