Tolerance is one of those words which have changed meaning over the course of the last half century or so. Formerly it essentially meant putting up with a thing which you didn’t really like but which getting rid off would cause more problems than it was worth. Now it is used to mean accepting a lifestyle/culture/religion/community as being worthy of respect and of equal value to every other lifestyle/culture/religion/community. In it’s new guise tolerance has become perhaps the defining civic virtue of contemporary Western societies.
To an extent this is simply making a virtue out of a necessity. Global economic inequalities combined with absolutely rapid and relatively cheap long distance transport inevitably leads to huge population movement. As a consequence wealthier societies cannot help becoming more and more heterogeneous. More subtly the instantaneous transmission of ideas around the world allows for communities of, say, Buddhists in Chipping Norton or Zoroastrians in Peoria to spring up overnight after a charismatic person is converted via the internet. This prompts old style tolerance but since it would be manifestly impolite to say so to the new minorities it is rebranded as something more positive.
Another strand, however, exists to new tolerance which is relativism. This holds that the different ways of being human are all equally valid because there is no absolutely correct way of living universally applicable to all. More precisely, it holds that the dominant Western paradigm of the last several centuries, that Christian beliefs and moral values are normative, is oppressive of freedom and that tolerance is a weapon which can dissolve this consensus by the expedient of creating a patchwork coalition of minorities which adds up to a majority. As a strategy (unconsciously followed in most cases) it has been remarkably successful. Any argument which suggests that there is an hierarchy of ways of being human with some ways, the more Christian-like, as being objectively superior to others is decried as intolerant. Since tolerance is the characteristic civic virtue of our times intolerance necessarily is its evil opposite which civic society is invited to drive out of the public square with execrations ringing in its ears.
This is the raw material for many of the culture warriors of our epoch to fight over. I would argue however that these conflicts absorb the attention and energy of small minorities of activists who are misled into proclaiming victories or defeats because public indifference is interpreted as tolerance. The one thing, indifference, can act as an effective simulacrum for the other, tolerance, but is a wholly different phenomenon. It proceeds from apathy so that it neither cares enough to feel irritated in an old fashioned way by a lifestyle/culture/religion/community but tolerate it anyway nor does it positively respect such lifestyles/cultures/religions/communities. It fundamentally doesn’t care.
It appears to me that among those sections of the Western population that have been settled in the same country for, say, five or more generations indifference is the new normal. By this I mean that they may be passionately concerned about themselves, their nuclear family, their friends, their work and their favourite sports club but beyond that they simply shrug their shoulders in unconcern. Not only do they feel nothing much about people with different lifestyles/cultures etc they often know little and care less about their near neighbours who share the same lifestyle/culture as themselves. This, I think, is tied in with the long slow auto-genocide of these populations by abortion, contraception, divorce and the adoption of necessarily sterile relationships. In short the, for want of a better word, native populations of the West have reached the end of their long creative phase and having run out of energy are dying of apathy.
This is not a new thing nor necessarily a bad one. Very often in the past civilisations have succumbed to internal languor and external invasion only to emerge in modified form re-energised and reinvigorated by new blood and the fusion of new ideas and ways of doing things with the old. Europe in particular has faced a series of invasions from the East which have first destroyed before rebuilding Western society and culture. What is novel is that today the infusion of new blood is not accompanied by fire and sword. Western countries are being renewed from within by peaceful incomers who possess the energy, fertility and communitarian outlook which their hosts are dying for the lack off. A recent study in England and Wales, for example, has shown that one in four new babies have foreign born mothers. This is hugely disproportionate to the percentage of migrants in the country and indicates that native and incoming populations have fundamentally different ways of viewing the world and what is important in it.
Very often when we talk about the success of migrants the focus is upon their individual effort and entrepreneurial spirit. Beneath this though are generally strong family bonds and community solidarity from which individuals benefit and in return for which they invest their gains in strengthening those families and communities. Simple and ancient values which Western native populations have become too atomised, tired and indifferent to practice. Almost invariably, though, these values are associated with an absolute standard, an assessment that some ways of being human are objectively superior to others. Usually this is based upon a religious belief.
It follows, then, that those cultural relativists who are promoting the new tolerance as a way of undermining one paradigm, based upon Christian belief, are preparing the ground not for a state of normlessness but for a new paradigm also based on religious belief. The vigorous, communitarian, religious and fruitful incomers will not be converted to Western values by an actively tolerant and welcoming society they will be left to get on with it by an apathetic and indifferent one. And this ‘getting on with it’ will lead to huge societal change and, I suspect, a total defeat of relativism. What is likely to emerge, out of necessity, will be societies based on old-style tolerance. That is, people will hold that there is an hierarchy of rightness and wrongness and that they are sitting at the top of it but that they need to accept the existence of rival notions because co-existence is preferable to all other options. It is not offensive to be told that you are wrong, it is only offensive to lack the freedom to respond in kind. Peacefully competing visions of truth are a sounder and livelier basis for society than a tolerance born of relativism or an indifference born of existential weariness.
My other blog is Catholic Scot
The picture is from a photo essay on the London Underground