For Intolerance


In his response to my article `Against Tolerance', Jonathan Gorman misses my main point by an astonishingly wide margin, and throws in a number of herrings of a most vivid redness. I'll look briefly at the first of these flushed fish before going on to tackle his main misunderstanding.

Gorman points out that the term `tolerance' is often used to mean just what I argued that it meant - and hence that a plea for racial tolerance, for example, presupposes that the people being addressed hold racist views, and that we're not calling for changes in their beliefs, only in their behaviour. Now, those who are interested solely in public order and the whitening of sepulchres will doubtless accept this; I cannot. I've no doubt that it's better that racists keep their foul views to themselves than that they express those views and harm others. I deeply doubt, however, that refraining from trying to change those views is morally acceptable - and I'd find it especially unacceptable for a philosopher to say, in effect: `Believe what you like, just don't act on your beliefs'.

However, it's with Gorman's main argument that I'm primarily concerned. In my article I made a distinction between the moral implications of believing that an action is wrong and that a belief or statement is wrong. I argued that we have an obligation at least to try to stop a person from performing a wrong action, but only to try to change a person's wrong belief. This had seemed to me to be simply drawing attention to the obvious; in a sense, changing a person's beliefs is to stop those beliefs, and stopping a person's actions is to change those actions. I sought merely to emphasise the difference in approach in each case. Now, Gorman makes the point (perfectly correctly) that free speech is the freedom to utter beliefs, and that an utterance is an action - but he goes on to draw the astonishing conclusion that I am therefore committed to saying that we are obliged to stop people from stating beliefs that we judge to be morally wrong. In other words, he accuses me of expressing what he calls (with what I hope is conscious irony) "a seriously intolerant position"; he accuses me of attacking free speech.

His argument rests on two main points: one is the imputation to me of a position that I don't hold and for which I didn't argue; the other is the introduction of one of the above-mentioned red herrings - the law. The position that I don't hold is that, if one judges a belief to be morally wrong, then one must also judge the statement of that belief to be morally wrong. I can find nothing in what I wrote to support Gorman's imputing such a position to me. It is, however, a position which is doubtless held by many if nor most of those who oppose free speech. I can only assume, then, that Gorman's reasoning was as follows: King opposes free speech; those who oppose free speech hold position P; therefore King holds position P; therefore King opposes free speech.

It might be thought, especially by someone who's read only Gorman's article, that he's at least exposed a vagueness or ambiguity in my original arguments, and that my defence consists in my making clearer what I'd originally fudged. In fact Gorman is careful to ignore the very clear passage in which I stated that I didn't "mean to imply that disagreeing with you justifies me in any attempt to suppress your opinion". He also ignores the passage in which I make the point that, in certain circumstances, the action of uttering one's beliefs is wrong in itself, and should be prevented - a pretty clear implication being that this isn't usually the case.

Gorman introduces what are at best two more red herrings. One forms part of his main argument, the other appears in his concluding paragraph and is, I think, very telling. The former concerns the law, about which Gorman says that I'd `forgotten'. Of course I hadn't forgotten about it; I was clearly and solely concerned with morality, not with the law. In a short article one has to limit one's scope. As I wasn't concerned with the question "whether and how far morality should be enforced by the law", I didn't confuse matters by mentioning it. Gorman has no such scruples.

The final herring concerns the social context of tolerance, and is significant in that it constitutes a major clue as to the reasons for Gorman's attack. In his short article he accuses me of using nebulous rhetoric (of which he gives no examples), of being confused about free speech (while ignoring most of what I said about it), and of forgetting about the law (despite the fact that I was clearly concerned solely with morality). He also indulges in rhetoric of his own: "Thank God for tolerance"; "This is the heart of tolerance, and respect for humanity requires it", etc.). Why? Why the vehemence? Why does the haste to attack overcome philosophical rigour and fairness? One phrase points, in my opinion, to the answer: "a pluralist society".

Gorman claims that tolerance is necessary if we're to live in a pluralist society. Now, I made clear that by `intolerance' I meant trying to prevent actions or to change beliefs that we judge to be morally wrong, tolerance being the failure to try. Is that really what Gorman wants of us? Well, what does he mean by "a pluralist society"? If that vague and P.C. phrase means anything useful (and it frequently means very little that's clear and unconfused), I take it to refer simply to a society in which there's a plurality of cultural traditions and backgrounds, of ideas and attitudes. Fine - a good society in which to live. But why should living in such a society dull our moral sense?

Gorman muddies my position still further by replacing my `immoral' by the term `alien' at one point; I'm not, however, talking about clothes or cuisines, about religious observances or table manners - I'm talking about morality. If Gorman were some sort of relativist, so that morality became nothing more than fashion or taste, then his position would be easier to understand (though no more acceptable) - but his closing remarks about "when it is right to tolerate what is wrong" suggest otherwise.

Let me be clear. If I see someone attempting to kill Salman Rushdie, I shall try to stop them. If someone expresses to me the view that Salman Rushdie should be killed, I shall argue with them. In neither case shall I patronisingly think: `Oh well, it's just their "alien standards", poor things; I'd better leave them alone.' I hope that, in fact, Gorman would do the same.


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