These days, if you don’t simply up and agree that tolerance is the Virtu Ultimo, you will be immediately accused of advocating intolerance. That’s what happens whenever one virtue is elevated above the others – it acquires that special cachet, that unassailable quality that allows everyone to feel all righteous by attacking you. Among individuals where chastity is the supreme virtue, suggesting it is simply one admirable quality among many lays you open to charges of advocating promiscuity. Where oathkeeping is the sine qua non of good human conduct, the least acknowledgement of possible extenuation brands you as a friend of liars and encourager of thieves.
It is therefore important for all of you to know right at the outset that I do think intolerance is just great. I have every gay person in the neighborhood on speed-dial so I can harrass and threaten them randomly four or five times a week. I taught my boys to subtly but effectively sabotage any attempts by people of color – any color – to improve their lives. We splatter red paint on campaign signs of candidates we don’t like, and I have for years been part of a super-secret organization that poisons the pets of Christians who hold heretical views on Transubstantiation, Gifts of the Spirit, and Semi-Pelagianism. Worse, I have actually advocated that everyone should vote for people they agree with.
Tolerance, also known as being non-judgmental, is an inexpensive virtue, hence its current popularity. Patience, mercy, honesty, self-sacrifice, humility, generosity – these all come at a cost. Tolerance is passive, and often indistinguishable from boredom, self-centeredness, or regular bowel habits. You can be tolerant of something by ignoring it.
Curiously, the idea is widespread that tolerance is the heart of the Christian message, the most important thing that Good Ol’ Jesus taught. Not only is the idea widespread among nonbelievers, it is frequently found among Episcopalians as well (insert obvious joke here). I don’t come away from the Gospels with that impression. Jesus spoke respectfully to women and those of low status. Other than that, where does the reputation for being non-judgmental come from? The weight of judgment of Matthew chapters 5-8 is crushing. But if by tolerance we mean that brood-of-vipers, beat-the-moneylenders stuff then sign me up. Can I have an Amen?
CS Lewis, in The Problem Of Pain, contends that in that era (about 1940), the virtue elevated above the others was kindness. He criticised that virtue in much the same way I do here with tolerance: that it was too dependent on mere feelings of well-being. Sadly, I think tolerance is a natural derivative, but actually a step down from kindness.
People insisting that we be tolerant don’t really like tolerance, they just like certain categories of it, usually related to sex or to perceived underdogs. Tolerant people are actually the worst enemies of the real underdogs. Most intolerance is actually a good thing, enabling us to live next door to each other, stand in line, and drive our cars safely. Societies are built upon things they will not tolerate. We don’t tolerate spitting on the bank tellers, molesting the children, or throwing trash into the street. If societies always go overboard, it is because they are over-sensitive to the dangers of anarchy.