Democratic tyranny

“The purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth — to close it again on something solid.” – G.K. Chesterton

J. V. Schall warned against what he called “democratic tyranny”, whose danger lies in the “inability to recognise what is good and what is evil”. This is evident today where our discussions are often framed, not in the context of good or evil, right or wrong; but tolerant or intolerant.

Tolerance, not truth, has become the bastion of our modern, liberal democracies.

“Our idea is that to be a virtuous citizen,” writes Leslie Armour, professor emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, “is to be one who tolerates everything except intolerance.”

The United Nations Declaration of Principles on Tolerance states: “Tolerance […] involves the rejection of dogmatism and absolutism.”

This backward version of tolerance sees itself as intrinsically superior, neutral and often sets itself up as the final arbiter in our discussions; especially the vexing moral issues of the day. Ironically, the more certain our secular friends become their intrinsically superior and neutral stance, the less tolerant they become.

Terry Eagleton puts it this way: “For all its vaunted openness to the Other, post-modernism can be quite as exclusive and censorious as the orthodoxies it opposes. One may, by and large, speak of human culture but not human nature, gender but not class, the body but not biology, jouissance but not justice, post-colonialism but not the petty bourgeoisie.

It is a thoroughly orthodox heterodoxy, which like any imaginary form of identity needs its bogeyman and straw targets to stay in business.”

There has been a not-so-subtle shift from the view that says, people have the right to hold and express different beliefs to the new brand of tolerance which makes obligatory the acceptance those beliefs. Failure to comply will result in one being stigmatised as intolerant.

We have erected “No Trespassing” signs around beliefs and attitudes in the name of not offending anyone. While we can understand to some extent why we would want our cherished ideas protected from public evaluation, the ideal of free speech (despite its difficulties), should be protected.

While some of us may be offended by Andre Serrano’s 1987 award-winning Piss Christ (a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine), we should still protect his right to express this view. Contrary to our modern sensibilities, to attack a belief is not to attack a person holding the belief no matter how closely that individual identifies with that belief.

Therefore, it does not necessarily follow that to support free speech is to support everything that is said.

Meaningful, pluralism does not mean that competing voices at the table cannot and should not say that the others are wrong. When this new tolerance becomes the ultimate standard-bearer, our discussions become impoverished and we walk away from the table patting each other on the back, smiling (perhaps thinking smugly to ourselves how “tolerant” and “open-minded” we are).

Unfortunately, we also walk away from the table, none the wiser and hungry, since we have nothing solid to close our mouths on.

— Adrian Sobers

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