Meaningless Tolerance

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of women voting in New York, and of course thisuniversal controversy now seems ludicrous, even in a Trump year. Do you support universal suffrage, as the banner to the right reads? Of course you do! Do you know anyone who doesn’t?

Ah, but I have tricked you! Because you may not support suffrage for:

  1. Minors
  2. Felons
  3. The comatose
  4. Foreigners living abroad
  5. Unregistered voters
  6. Cats
  7. Rocks
  8. Abstract concepts, such as justice or mercy

Those eight, and many more, are all parts of the universe, after all

When you said you supported universal suffrage, you meant you supported the rights of universalsuffra00repugoog_0005American women over 18 in good standing etc. You obviously meant this, and anyone pretending you supported votes for rocks is trolling you.

Except that “American women over 18 in good standing etc.” is very much not what  New York in 1917, or the Nineteenth Amendment  in 1920, permitted. The voting age was 21.

And the term “universal suffrage” had been used before without women in mind at all. When Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, called for universal suffrage in 1865 he was talking about black men.

The problem with the term universal suffrage is that no one who has said it has ever meant it. Beecher said “universal” and meant black men; Lucenia W. Richards said “universal” and meant adult women. Both meant the same thing, though. Both meant, “Everyone who should be allowed to vote should be allowed to vote,” which is clearly true, and clearly tautological. I believe (as you probably do) that adult citizens, regardless of age or sex, should be allowed to vote, perhaps with a few exceptions. That tiny bit of creation is what I call “universal.”

But no one’s going to rally behind a banner reading “slightly more suffrage.”

“Universal suffrage” sounds good. It sounds final, as though the people who are opposed to it are opposed to just the one sliver of change that will bring policy into harmony with the natural order. In a word, it sounds meaningful. But it’s just a tautology.

So many of our terms are like this, and so often we get beguiled by them. This is why marketers try so hard to slip awesome words into everything — you can’t even complain about a “convenience fee” without inadvertently talking about how “convenient” it is. But we do it to ourselves, too.

Who doesn’t love tolerance? Tolerance is a virtue, but no human ever to live has believed that all tolerance is a virtue (possibly Camus’s Caligula?). It is trivial to think of things that should not be tolerated. If I start at A with arson, you should be able to fill the rest of the alphabet (maybe make a children’s book?) without much problem.

xxtolerance-And now you’re rolling your eyes and saying that of course you didn’t mean tolerate arson. What you meant was tolerate good, or possibly neutral, things. Things that should be tolerated. Tolerate the tolerable.

But tolerate the tolerable is a tautology. Every person already tolerates the tolerable and does not tolerate the intolerable. If say you support “tolerance” you are saying nothing.

People who want to punish hate speech are explicitly in favor of tolerance. People who want to not punish hate speech are explicitly in favor of tolerance. If the US and Canada both agree that they’re opposed to all “foreigners,” they have actually not come to an agreement.

Tolerance: It sounds good, but it means literally nothing. If you have ever said “we should be more tolerant” you said nothing. If you have ever said “there’s too much tolerance” you said nothing. Gostaks should distim more doshes!

For the record, I’m for more tolerance and less arson.

(A different, and I’ll admit better, take on tolerance can be found here.)

ETA: I just found this quote from Carlysle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), which I read years ago and may have been unconsciously thinking of the whole time I was writing this.

Well, surely it is good that each of us be as tolerant as possible. Yet, at bottom, after all the talk there is and has been about it, what is tolerance? Tolerance has to tolerate the unessential; and to see well what that is. Tolerance has to be noble, measured, just in its very wrath, when it can tolerate no longer. But, on the whole, we are not altogether here to tolerate! We are here to resist, to control and vanquish withal. We do not “tolerate” Falsehoods, Thieveries, Iniquities, when they fasten on us; we say to them, Thou art false, thou art not tolerable! We are here to extinguish Falsehoods, and put an end to them, in some wise way! I will not quarrel so much with the way; the doing of the thing is our great concern.


  1. I wouldn’t say being in favor of or opposed to tolerance is meaningless. It means that the list of things which are tolerated should either be expanded or reduced. Of course you are right that saying this without saying which things should be included or excepted isn’t particularly useful.

    Additionally most people seem to confuse tolerating something with liking it. Example: if I were to publicly say, “I don’t like homosexuality, feel uncomfortable around gays and would prefer not to be in their presence, but nonetheless think they should be allowed to live as they choose,” do you think I would receive accolades for my tolerance or condemnation for my intolerance?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is precisely what “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” asks.

      Theoretically, you’re right, and requesting more tolerance should mean that we should expand the “tolerance window.” In my experience, this is not actually the case, and calling for more tolerance means more tolerance over here and less over there, and whether the actual number of things being tolerated is expanded or contacted is random. Calling for more or less tolerance just signals your demographic.


  2. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    In on of my favorite parts of Rainer Forst’s work on tolerance (which is all theoretical, in reality we shouldn’t let Nazi’s speak because we’ve heard and answered all of their arguments and the debate is settled so there’s no point) he mentions a few paradoxes of tolerance that can guide us to a coherent conception of the virtue (by way of giving us things to avoid). I forget which one it is, but this conversation is getting at it.

    If I really think it’s a virtue to increase tolerance, but I also think I’ve met the limits of what society can handle in terms of diversity, my best route to moral improvement is to read a lot of hate literature and try to convince myself that I can’t stand some new group of people. If I can do this while remaining a classical liberal then we’ve attained a net gain in tolerance.

    He tries to get around the vaguery condemned in the OP by insisting that tolerance is a normatively dependent concept, and you have to figure out what it’s normative antecedents are. He tries to smoosh together Bayle and Kant and ground our conception on an idea of human dignity + the fallibility of human reason. We know for certain all humans have dignity. We know for certain that both we and they might be wrong about most of our beliefs of a moral/metaphysical bent. We know that everyone needs to have some ideas of this sort to move about in the world. So we should allow all those ideas to exist, but not let them act as the basis for any political repression. Of course, this is incoherent because its insisting that some moral/metaphysical views (about human dignity and epistemic capacities) be used to represses the views of others (about these same things) in the political sphere.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > in reality we shouldn’t let Nazi’s speak because we’ve heard and answered all of their arguments and the debate is settled so there’s no point

      Is this irony?


    2. Also:

      > try to convince myself that I can’t stand some new group of people

      Done. Daily done.

      I’m helping!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: