Ladies and gentlemen,
A few months ago at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, I heard an Indian jurist's lecture on human rights. The speaker had been a professor at an important European university for years, so he could not be suspected of narrow local patriotism or provinciality. But he approached the theme of human rights from the viewpoint of Hindu tradition. Overall, his interest was in tying the concept of "rights" to that of "obligations", as well as in defining dharma, a concept alien to the conventions of European culture. Dharma is the universal law of Being, the functional basis of the world. In this context, individual duty is not decided by the demands of others, of institutions, or of immanent laws, but on the basis of dharma, of a cosmic order in which every existence must take part if it is not to invalidate itself.
While listening to the lecture, I remembered an earlier colloquium on the same theme, this one organized by the Arab countries. The colloquium ended with the assertion of the principle that one cannot speak of human rights without constantly invoking "the rights of Allah". It is clear that the problematic of human rights presented itself in the Indian and Islamic viewpoints differently from in the European perspective, which doubtless led to severe problems in communication.
Discussions were supposed to follow the lecture at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, as usual. For those who are unfamiliar with this Berlin institution, I would like to mention that "the audience" consists of a team of about thirty scholars from all over the world. But dominating is the European viewpoint, with everything that implies in historical, cultural, methodological, and other preconditions. But there was practically no discussion after the lecture, which is not normally the case in this academic community. Those present in the lecture hall were clearly taken by surprise. They were familiar with what we could call the "vulgate" of human rights, but they knew little or nothing about other civilizations and cultures. What they had just learned from the Indian professor did not fit their usual concept at all. Those present had other and different opinions born out of a philosophy in which metaphysics in the traditional sense and theology no longer have any weight. But their natural impulse to discuss the problem was hindered and embarrassed by several principles that in recent decades have come to be viewed as inviolable: respect for and the right to difference, and tolerance toward other people's opinions.
The thoughts that now follow originate in my desire to understand this blockade of dialogue and to draw attention to the crisis of a concept - tolerance. Tolerance has become a commonplace of "civilized" behavior and, like every commonplace, has achieved a blind, shapeless validity.
An initial remark on the unusual situation at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin is that we live in a world of globalization in which spatial and cultural distances are palpably shrinking, but that this does not rule out ignorance about the intellectual and social foundations of the other; on the contrary, it increases the irrational aspect of this ignorance. One can reach Bangkok relatively quickly, one can maintain political or trade relations with Bangkok, and one can do all of this without epistemologically leaving the picturesque scenery of the tourist's level. A relationship of inverse proportion paradoxically arises between globalization and "general education". The easier it is to encounter each other, the less we know each other.
A second remark is that ignorance does not preclude cordiality. One can have good relations with someone about whose cultural background one knows nothing. At first glance, this seems a gain for civilization: communication is possible even in the absence of knowledge. But can one speak of genuine communication under such conditions? Or is this simply a question of etiquette, with a pleasant surface choreography? Basically, we are experiencing a substantial change in the meaning of the concept of "tolerance". It no longer characterizes the acceptance of "being different" or of a different opinion, but quite simply the (friendly and well-meaning) ignoring of the other opinion, the elimination of difference as difference. The results of this are (A) I need not understand you to accept you, and (B) I need not discuss with you in order to tell you are right. In other words, I agree with what I don't understand, and I agree in principle with what I don't agree with. You have a right to your opinion. I respect your opinion. I have a right to my opinion and expect that it be respected. Dialectic is unnecessary. This mutual tolerance ends in a universal, peaceful, confidently smiling silence. A silence for which dialogue is only an undesirable disturbance.
Under these conditions, the effects of tolerance are more than questionable. It curtails the pleasure in knowledge and in genuine understanding of being different, and it undermines the desire for a debate. Why bother, when the result consists in mutual affirmation of each other's right anyway? In a world governed by such rules, Socrates would have been unemployed. There is no truth to be found, and no chain of proof is needed. All that is asked of us is that we politely respect our interlocutor's convictions.
This unquestioned call for tolerance puts into question several categories that were still operational until yesterday: error, guilt, the relationship to the exception, the principles of education, the technique of disputation, and, in general, the risky problematic of the unacceptable and the intolerable. Tolerance is transformed from a pure necessity for living together well ("L'apanage de l'humanité", the prerogative of humaneness, says Voltaire. "To forbear each other's foolishnesses is the first law of nature.") into a neutral disposition, a kind of logical and axiological anesthesia, a symptom of a cheerful inner paralysis. Being tolerant seems to mean eschewing one's sense of orientation. Please don't judge and condemn my worry prematurely. I'm not calling for intolerance and the cruelty of the geometrical spirit. I do not want to re-establish black-and-white judgments, nor the normative sclerosis of dichotomies and the unrealistic monotony of "either/or". All I want to do is point out that there is an urgent necessity to add discriminatory faculty to tolerance, to avoid confounding respect for difference with the dissolving ethic of "anything goes".
Agreement is general that the modern debate on tolerance begins with John Locke at the end of the 17th century. But in reality, a concept is probably already in crisis if it becomes a topic of controversy and one feels a need for its theoretical justification and its explicit public assertion (see also the contemporary overuse of the "European" problematic...) Against the backdrop of barbaric conflicts between the various religious denominations and factions, which were incapable of living together, Locke suggested a philosophical justification of tolerance. In this context, tolerance was an antidote to the practice of persecution. Nor should we forget that tolerance, in the European sense, originally prevailed in its strictly religious connotations. Extrapolating it to other fields is a difficult endeavor requiring nuances and reformulation. (In this sense, incidentally, John Locke, the theoretician of tolerance and an outstanding proponent of the separation between civil and religious life, is not "modern" enough to accept a tolerance toward atheists; their lack of spiritual engagement made them seem antisocial beings to him.)
But there is a self-evident component of tolerance that is part of the behavioral heritage of the human species and therefore did not have to wait until the beginnings of the modern age to find expression. I refer primarily to tolerance toward oneself, which I think has an ancient tradition. Man has probably behaved in a "Christian" manner toward himself since long before the appearance of Christianity. We know our own sins all too well, we know unutterable and unconfessable things about ourselves, and we often do not approve of what we ourselves do. But all in all, we regard ourselves with a great deal of sympathy - we understand ourselves, we endure ourselves, and we forgive ourselves. What thereby prevails is the feeling that we are basically decent people, "good guys", righteous persons. In any case, we are not as bad as it appears and, above all, we are not as bad as others are.
That's why I am tempted to assert that "Love thy neighbor as thyself" does not mean "Love the others as much as you love yourself", but rather "Love the others with the same forbearance with which you love yourself" and "Be just as tolerant of others' weaknesses as you are of your own." An inconsequential but telling example of the tolerance we have toward ourselves is the forbearance we usually exercise toward our own habits and idiosyncrasies. No matter how ridiculous or compulsive they may be, our idiosyncrasies are part of ourselves to such a degree that we never really consider possibly reforming them.
Tolerance also seems absolutely natural when we practice it toward those close to us. Love always expresses itself, and sometimes irrationally, in tolerance: We are lenient with our children, with the members of our family, and with some friends. We accept slip-ups and deviations from them that would appear unacceptable to us in others.
Basically, life within small communities is a genuine school of tolerance. In larger communities, one can isolate oneself, creating clubs based on affinities, and thus avoid contact with everything disconcerting or bothersome. But in a family, one has to accommodate oneself to the particularities of each member, like a fate that, in the given situation, cannot be escaped. Marriage, for example, demands a tolerant spirit to the point of martyrdom. It is absolutely necessary to come to an agreement and to accustom oneself to the way one's spouse rolls up the toothpaste tube (or does not), to get used to eating habits and peculiarities, rhythms and idiosyncrasies that are completely alien.
But tolerance is an ordinary experience even outside of one's relationship to oneself or to people one is close to. In everyday life, what we could call the "weak variant of tolerance" is widespread: leniency. You know that something is going on that is against the rules and you don't approve of it, but you "overlook" it. You act as if you did not perceive the violation. For example, you know that some pupils at school smoke in the bathrooms during the breaks. You know that the cleaning woman in your office filches your bonbons, that your buddy X smokes your cigarettes. But you decide that it is not worth attributing importance to such trifles. Leniency is thus the tendency to tolerate what appears inessential. The little sins that we commit or - like everyone - committed in another phase of life, have to be treated with leniency, covered up, forgotten. Leniency is the tolerance of grandparents who observe their grandchildren's precious pranks from the corner of their amused eyes and who do not intervene.
Another, "stronger" form of tolerance is also common, not to say banal: complicity, silent approval. You can no longer overlook the violation of the rule, but pragmatic calculation leads you to decide to allow it. We - at least all of us in Eastern Europe - know that "Baksheesh" (tips) are a very unhealthy matter. We do not approve of it, but we practice it - whether out of weakness or out of strategic opportunism. We prefer to acquiesce to a bad habit than to accept the adverse effects of correcting it. It seems more profitable to stimulate prompt service or to reward the granting of favors than to give futile and senseless lessons on correctness...
One lacks the courage to intervene with moralization, one does not want to be an antipathetic wet blanket, or one regards an improvement of income under certain circumstances as excusable - at any rate, one decides, in accordance with the principle of the lesser evil, to take part in the transgression. The French expression for brothel - "la maison de tolérance" - is also to be understood within this semantic field ("Tolérance?" exclaimed a French writer, "Mais il y a des maisons pour cela!") The brothel, the house of tolerance, has the task of neutralizing a potential source of uncontrolled disorder, in that a civil decision sets up a territory of controlled disorder, a permitted disorder, as long as some rules are respected. In canon law, this is called permissio comparativa and is to be preferred over unconditional permission (approbatio).
Finally, on another level, we sometimes have to do with a dismal species of tolerance: resignation. One sees the violation of a rule and one rejects it internally, but one endures it like something unavoidable. As a rule, one decides for resignation either because one does not believe the situation can be changed (nor, therefore, that there is any sense in trying to change it) or because, for one reason or another, one wants to keep up appearances.
In the first case, tolerance has a tinge of discouragement and lies close to the boundary of cowardice. The person who is terrorized by a dictatorship is not slow to react because he is tolerant of the dictatorship, but because he is intimidated by its inventory of repressive methods. In the second case, tolerance is subsumed in the rhetoric of sanctimony and hypocrisy: A husband or wife who knows about his or her spouse's betrayal accepts the situation to maintain conventions and thus appears to practice tolerance. But basically, he or she has merely resigned, for the sake of his or her own or of the partner's image.
The situations I have enumerated thus far prove that there is an ahistorical practice and problematic of tolerance that is indeed, as Voltaire said, "a prerogative of humaneness". Even if and when external conditions have drastically narrowed the spectrum of its manifestation, tolerance remains the minimum prerequisite for living together, the internal hygiene of group functionality. The fact that today people speak much more and more significantly about this topic than until recently is no indication of a new domain of reflection, but rather a deviating expansion of the concept, a change of context that brings the field of this concept to the verge of explosion.
Before attempting to describe this development, I would like to briefly systematize the aforementioned cases:
1. Tolerance is an epiphenomenon of communal life. At least two different persons are required before the problem of tolerance can be posed in proper terms. The psychologization of the concept, the discourse about tolerant or intolerant "dispositions", about mildness of temperament (Calvin spoke of mansuetudo animi), and the definition of tolerance as an autonomous virtue, as a value "in itself", and thus with absolute legitimization - all of these are irrelevant, inconsequential speculations, as long as there is no opportunity for a direct experiment, a "social test". For Robinson Crusoe, for example, living alone on the island, the question of tolerance does not arise. I mention this merely to preclude the enthusiastic (and utopian) chatter about tolerance in general and to discourage the prattle about its angelic, altruistic magnanimity. "We have to be tolerant" - means nothing. The problem is: Under what circumstances, at what moment, to what degree, and toward whom or what are we tolerant?
2. Tolerance is at issue only when one of two sides confronting each other can exercise power. In other words: Only he can be tolerant who has the means to be intolerant. Tolerance is the rational decision of a coercive power to limit its coercive function and not to abuse its own power. From the viewpoint of power, tolerance is the limit of the right to intervene. Note that genuine power, power that has a broad basis of legitimization, is generally much more tolerant than arbitrary, illegal power imposed on its own authority. Dictatorships are intolerant, because they feel threatened by the varied metabolism of their subjects. All variegated, colorful life threatens its hysterical uniformity. Legislative inflexibility and a surfeit of regulations are symptoms of a weak organism with a limited "range of tolerance". Strong systems, by contrast, afford themselves a much more generous margin of permissiveness.
Tolerance is thus the expression of a strong political organism, a guarantee for the health of the social body. Laxity, the abandonment of criteria, anarchy, value confusion, feeble institutions, and disintegrating relativism are not signs of increased tolerance at all, but symptoms of degeneration.
Genuine tolerance is the antipode of weakness. One cannot be tolerant on behalf of a colorless facelessness, one cannot permit otherness when one has no identity oneself. One cannot permit everything simply because one does not believe in anything.
In brief, one cannot efficiently serve pluralism by taking recourse to an anemic facelessness. Tolerance is the attention that the majority grants each minority, the understanding that the strong show for the weak, and the wisdom of the norm of not seeking to enforce the norms with power and coercion. In a world where the principle of equality had won final victory, the "ethic" of tolerance would be obsolete, just as it would be in a world of universally accepted freedom of religion. Tolerance is a virtue of the stronger party in living together with a counterpart that is disadvantaged in one way or another. Without this structural separation, one cannot speak of real tolerance, but only of a kindhearted exchange of politenesses. It testifies to a certain social pathology when a minority declares itself "tolerant" of a majority, when the exception tolerates the rule. As if the rabbit declared itself tolerant of the elephant.
3. From the viewpoint of society, tolerance is the acceptable solution of a disagreement. I decide for non-discriminatory behavior in relation to a situation for whose disapproval I could find arguments. Agreement with the other cannot be termed tolerance; it is merely a form of consensus. The word "tolerance" is used accurately and fittingly only if the judgment of the tolerated object retains a negative connotation. The expression "I am tolerant toward beautiful women" is absurd, unless it comes from a misogynist for whom beautiful women is a damnable category. You cannot be tolerant toward an idea or fact that you affirm and accept unconditionally. You cannot "tolerate" what you are in harmony with. There must be a mental reservation, a difference of opinion, a determination of critical difference between the one tolerating and the tolerated object. Tolerance is the tendency - or the decision - to accept things that would be defined as unacceptable in accordance with certain criteria. Tolerance is shaking hands with what actually disconcerts and exasperates.
All of these remarks lead to the conclusion that tolerance is a suitable and advisable behavior, but only because the world is imperfect. Tolerance finds its place primarily in the "environment" of differences that are difficult to resolve, of political and social inequalities, of tension between good and evil. Tolerance demands that discernment show flexibility and that judgment refrain from imposing penalties. Not excluding what does not include oneself; allowing the other to be different and even, within limits, to make mistakes; accommodating the unsystematizable diversity of opinions, convictions, and customs; not replacing conviction with coercion and extortion - these are the demands of tolerance, this is its "dignity" in the unfortunately impure ambience of everyday public life. In paradise, tolerance has neither sense nor value. It is a transitory virtue, a transitional maneuver adapted to sublunary promiscuity. Under the conditions of a subsistence marked by traps, temptations, and provocations, tolerance aims in a certain way to rescue the decency of humanity. Ideal would be a world in which tolerance was unnecessary - in which evil was tamed, power equally distributed, and differences harmonized. Until the improbable moment when this comes to pass, we are, so to speak, "damned" to tolerance. We must cultivate tolerance lucidly, level-headedly, and without idolatry, and we must keep a watchful eye over the latent pathology of its functioning. For tolerance can definitely have murky abysses, suspicious motivations, and deforming effects. Let us look more closely at some of these aspects.
There are forms of tolerance that, despite attractive packaging, contain a poisonous core. For example, there is the tolerance born of ambition. From the perspective of an exaggerated self-assessment, tolerance is a form of condescension and patronization, the arrogant marginalization of the tolerated object: I move in such lofty heights that I don't deign to even perceive the difference. I refuse to lower myself to deal with everything that contradicts me or puts me in a bad mood.
Under certain circumstances, arrogance decides to behave tolerantly out of a kind of strategic consideration: I tolerate in order to defuse, I swallow and incorporate what resists me, and I thereby integrate resistance to the system in the overpowering image of the system. In the 1966 anthology "Critique of Pure Tolerance", Herbert Marcuse defined this kind of tolerance as a "mechanism of integration" and classified it as "repressive tolerance". But "condescending" tolerance is not the only blameworthy form; there is also the tolerance "from below" - tolerance as the expression of submissive humility (tolerance as "enduring") or as a sign of lack of character or weak convictions.
One can also be "tolerant" out of opportunism or pure indifference. The atheist who declares himself "tolerant" in religious questions is a fraud: In reality, the whole field of the religious is indifferent to him, so that "tolerance" costs him nothing. Here it should also be noted that, in general, inconstant or thoughtless natures and those tending toward a certain mental over-subtlety are more adaptable and are more skillful in feigning tolerance than are geometrically consistent natures. The sophists who demand that the laws not abuse the normative are more tolerant than Plato...
One cannot avoid noting that a lax practice of tolerance and its demagogic exaggeration bears the risk of anarchic developments. Karl Popper rightly remarked in his book "The Open Society" that "unlimited tolerance leads to the disappearance of tolerance". In other words, we have to reserve "the right not to tolerate the intolerant". Popper's formulation is worded with extreme circumspection. He speaks of the intolerant person, but seems unconcerned with the category of the unacceptable, the intolerable. But tolerance is dangerous precisely when it minimizes, evades, or simply negates the problematic of the intolerable.
What can we say about this problematic? More precisely, are there any objective limits to tolerance? In the applied sciences, things are simple and revealingly obvious and clear. They use the term "range of tolerance" to indicate the limits within which certain deviations are allowed without impairing a given whole. The "range of tolerance" is used, for example, when the degree of precision is designated within which a component part must be produced. The diameter of a pipe or the weight of a coin can "tolerate" a certain approximation of the dimensions, but there is a limit beyond which the piece is rejected. The same is true for the human body - up to a certain limit, it can withstand physical pain or the ingestion of toxic substances. Beyond this limit, the physiological balance and the body collapse. No system, whether mechanical or biological, can survive conditions that overwhelm its "range of tolerance". No whole can tolerate principles or situations that undermine its raison d'être. For example, a judicious constitution cannot contain any article giving every citizen the right to violate the constitution.
Another illustration of the intolerable is error. The tendency to show "understanding" for someone who maintains that two and two equal five cannot be regarded as tolerance. Tolerance is equally inappropriate in the area of the legal system. One cannot plead in the name of tolerance to eschew penalizing a proven crime. Reduced sentences, pardons, or forgiveness operate with completely different principles and are on a completely different semantic level from tolerant behavior.
In pedagogy, too, practiced tolerance is not a particularly auspicious solution. Of course, brutal methods and narrow-minded didacticism without any understanding or patience are out of the question. But the theory of "identification" with the person one wants to bring up, the tendency to find a justifying and excusing diagnosis for all his inadequacies, inhibits and blocks the modeling impulse. Quite simply, you cannot bring up a child whom you "understand completely" by programmatically putting yourself in "his place". The "place" of the pedagogue must be unmistakably delimited from that of the pupil, even if the pedagogue has something to learn while he teaches.
To the degree that the topic of tolerance became more and more "politically correct" and fashionable against the backdrop of postmodern relativism, the contours of tolerance began to blur. At the beginning of the 1980s, one began speaking ever more frequently of the "paradox of tolerance". This arose, first, from the question "How should the tolerant spirit respond to intolerance?" and, second, from the difficulty of finding a precise argumentation for the claim that it is "good to tolerate what is not good". But to what extent is the tolerant spirit obligated to behave permissively toward the intolerant person and the intolerable? And how can the acceptance of the unacceptable be rationally justified? Isn't the fact that you declare yourself tolerant an insult - as Goethe said - to the thing tolerated? Should tolerance develop toward an encouraging agreement, toward esteem and respect? Shouldn't the exception finally no longer be regarded as a transgression of the norm, but rather as a norm-shaping transgression?
Starting from this kind of question, what previously had the status only of a tolerated reality begins gradually expanding and striving for legitimacy, by questioning the legitimacy of the tolerating authority. In other words, the exception becomes tolerant of the rule, and the rule takes on a stance of guilt feelings, even of an inferiority complex toward the exception. The exception becomes militant and self-satisfied, almost even discriminatory and intolerant.
All this confusion is the result of the way we define "difference" and how we relate to "difference". We have noted that tolerance can exist only where there is difference. The difference wants to be accepted and have a right to its identity; it wants a statute of validity, as would be normal in a pluralistic world that is prepared to "render unto difference what belongs to difference".
But the matter is much trickier than it appears on first glance, for difference wants, on the one hand, to be recognized and confirmed as difference, while on the other hand it strives for the status of the generalization that integrates it with all the other "differences" in the generality.
What is tolerated as different does not always want to feel that it is different, that it is an example of a peculiar category. It consequently does not like to be treated differently from the others (even if this is a positive "differently", a surplus of benevolence). Its discourse has two components that, in a way, contradict each other: (A) Respect me as I am, no matter how much I differ from you. Let me be different! (B) Basically, I am like you and don't want the status of the tolerated exception. The difference that separates us is incidental when we consider the humanity that unites us. Don't force me to be constantly aware that I am different! Accordingly: (A) Accept and bear responsibility for the difference, and (B) behave as if the difference did not exist!
To unite the two demands (A and B) in a single, coherent mode of behavior, a great deal of social benevolence, psychological sensitivity, and metaphysical perspicacity is required. If one emphasizes the difference, one will be suspected of a latent discriminatory spirit. If one emphasizes equality, one will be suspected of minimizing the difference. Whatever one does, one is caught in a vicious circle that provokes general disapproval. One takes precautionary measures, but these can turn into as many faux pas. It resembles the cases of "sexism" that I myself experienced at several universities in the United States: If you let a woman into a building before you, you are labeled a "macho"; if you don't, you have no manners.
Another example is the development of a disadvantaged community's relations with a privileged community. In recent years, numerous donations arrived in Romania for handicapped children. It proved extremely difficult to explain to healthy, but equally impoverished children in nearby children's homes why the wonderful presents from abroad did not come their way - especially because the healthy institutionalized children, in their childlike innocence, made no big deal about the difference between themselves and the others.
I experienced a rather amusing story a few years ago in London's Hyde Park. A very good-looking black man held a remarkable speech at Speaker's Corner; it was constructed as a racist caricature of the white majority. It went roughly like this: "I look at you and am overcome with pity. You have small nostrils through which one can hardly breathe. That explains why your brains have an inadequate supply of oxygen and your thinking is so inhibited and mediocre. Take a look at my nostrils: broad, vital, and able to take up all the wonderful scents of the world. Your skin, too, is unbelievable: During the day it is white, it turns obscenely red in the sun, and at night it is blue. I am black, jet black, without any hesitation and independently of the ambience." The catastrophic comparison continued - from the teeth to the pubic area - in the final analysis, to prove the degeneration of the whites in comparison with the endless biological potential of Africans. The British public that had collected in front of this audacious tribune soon lost its proverbial British calm composure. Some, overwhelmed by the obviousness of the arguments, went their depressed ways, others began to scold loudly, giving the speaker the opportunity for a final, withering observation: "Just see how primitively you react! You have even lost your sense of humor!" The representative of a community persecuted and disadvantaged for centuries took revenge in an ironic and convincing way. The one tolerated yesterday looked down on his former persecutors with hypocritical pity.
This model of role exchange is ancient. Christianity, too, shifted without any inhibition from martyrdom to the Inquisition. In the communist era, we were told in history class at school how, at the unjust trials that bourgeois or feudal regimes held against communist fighters, the latter fearlessly turned from accused into accusers.
The contemporary tribulations of tolerance make it hard to discern anymore who tolerates whom; one no longer knows who is the victim of whom. The one tolerated yesterday becomes today's tolerant one or invents a new kind of intolerance. The fear of making a mistake leads to complicated forms of self-censorship, to baroque forms of hypocrisy, and to unprecedented social anxieties. The problematic of tolerance is developing unimagined and unexpected nuances. A passionate discussion of this theme can be found in Thomas Nagel's "Mortal Questions" (Cambridge University Press, 1979). The author notes that the fear of slipping into a condemnable negative discrimination gives rise to a natural tendency to practice a positive discrimination. Among equally qualified candidates for a particular position, the choice is generally for the disadvantaged, black, or female candidate. The question now arises whether this decision is just or not. Nagel's opinion is that this is a just decision whose goal is to correct an earlier, clearly unjust system.
On the other hand, positive discrimination taken to its extreme points up the problem of the right relationship between equality and freedom. The need for equality ends in a crisis of the need for free competition and free choice. Also: How far can the rule of positive discrimination go? Nowadays, racist injustice and sexual injustice are minimal and under control in the civilized countries. But new dilemmas and new predicaments can appear on the horizon at any time. Perhaps we would spontaneously prefer the better looking of two equal candidates for the same position and, to avoid negative discrimination, would rationally have to choose the one who is not so good-looking. We would have to take care not to advantage the slender over the fat, not the blonde over the dark-haired, and not the tall over the short. But what should we do when we have to choose between an intelligent candidate and one who is not intelligent? Or between a talented and an untalented candidate? One could assume that, in our perfidious way, we would tend to prefer intelligence and talent. But shouldn't we have scruples and ask ourselves whether the stupid and untalented are to blame for being the way they are? Shouldn't we prefer them, thus correcting the injustice done them at birth?
Nagel concedes that proceeding further in this direction leads to the boundary of moral utopianism. We will never find the perfect dosage of regulative constraint that does not hinder individual freedom or the right to make a decision in accordance with personal criteria and in harmony with a way of living and working that is not "colonized" by an abstract jurisprudence - in Habermas's words.
To make even clearer the difficulties involved in the operative definition of "difference" and in the contradictory desire to institutionalize difference while simultaneously reducing it, I will here briefly address the problematic of same-sex marriage. In this case, we are dealing with a fundamental unclearness about the essence of the intent, which culminates in a self-introduced identity crisis. Actually, the homosexual wants that the "difference" that he embodies should no longer suffer negative discrimination, which means that it should be socially assimilated as a matter of course and freed of all connotation of guilt. The homosexual wants to be accepted as homosexual, just as the heterosexual is accepted as heterosexual. But among the essential data of his status as a homosexual is the specificity of his erotic metabolism, his characteristic and exclusive availability to a partner of the same sex. This is the difference that must be accepted as difference and freed of the "prejudice of abnormality", of norm violation. But in certain couples, along with the imperative of difference, the striving arises to lay claim to the very institutions that make the difference.
Marriage is not a universally valid structure of human living together. There have been historical periods and traditions in which marriage in no way possessed the meaning, reputation, and status that European modernity has given it. Even in our world, the prospects of its devitalization and even of its possible abolition as an institution are discussed.
Married life is not a biological rule of the species the way human survival needs are. Be that as it may, if the institution of marriage has any meaning, then it is inseparably tied to securing offspring and all the social, economic, legal, and other components that entails. Marriage did not arise simply as a officialization of love, for it is clear that it never occurs to us to marry everyone whom we love. Suitable for marriage is only that kind of relationship that maintains the family tree, on the one hand, and the communal network, on the other. In the first case, we are dealing with fertile, i.e., heterosexual couples; in the second, with families of the same kind, which together create the network of a homogeneous society.
The couple that does not reproduce and the family that cannot integrate itself in the majoritarian structure of the community - and at best creates its own, minoritarian network (the network of homosexual families) - miss the genetic point of a married or societal unit. I ignore here the paradox that an "avant-garde movement" in terms of sexual morals desires and strives for a traditional, indeed traditionalistic human institution. But I am confused in my rational effort to tolerantly accept and approve of the difference. My perplexity has its origin in the tendency of difference to build itself up and to dissolve itself as difference by adopting precisely the most specific customs of the category from which it wants to delimit and differentiate itself. This is somehow as if a polar bear demanded the right to keep its color in a community of brown bears and then demanded to be dyed brown...
We are moving on uncertain, dangerous terrain plastered with prejudices, vulnerabilities, and mistrust. Every radicality can lead to suffering, but every permissive frivolity can lead to confusion and disorder. We simply have no solutions. So let's not act as if we did... All we can say is that the reasons for our tolerance are more numerous and weighty than the reasons speaking for intolerance. We can be tolerant in the name of reason and determine that every individual has the right to his own opinion and that this principle of law is the original rationality of our specific structure. But we can also be tolerant in the name of the uncertainty of our shaky reason and determine that we have no access to universal truth and thus also no access to absolute certainty, and that, consequentially, our claim to be right all the time has nothing to back it up...
We can believe the Stoics that man stands above truth and that it would thus be unwise to geometrically limit him with abstract judgments. Or we can be Relativists like John Milton ("Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing", 1644) and note that, on an immanent level, there is no chemically pure evil or chemically pure good and that we thus lack criteria for categorical and decisive distancing and separation ("In moral evil much good can be mixed..."). We can say, with John Stuart Mill, that tolerance is the necessary derivative of freedom, or claim, with John Rawls, that it is the logical correlate of equality.
An extremely important and far too little noted source of tolerance is humor. To view the spectacle of the world without doggedness, to be able to enjoy the colorful charm of the real, the ability to distinguish between the (very few) things that must be taken seriously and the (numerous) things that need not be taken seriously, and above all the ability to not take oneself too seriously with all one's bombastic opinions, prefabricated certainties, and more or less hypocritical claims and demands - all of this together would certainly be a very thorough motivation for a spirit of tolerance.
A stimulating background for tolerance, along with humor, is genuine faith or - to use a more encompassing term - the sense of transcendence. Intolerance is the opposite: an exaggeration of immanence, a kind of short-sightedness that monumentalizes existing differences in the undetermined development of the horizontal and that is unable to gain elevation and thus to view things from the vantage point of a calm timelessness, rather than from the perspective of clamorous everyday life.
Tolerance imitates or anticipates the sovereign "justice" of God (see Romans, 3, 26), "for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew, 5, 45). Divine "justice" is termed anoché in the Greek text. The prefix "aná" indicates the rising direction. Tolerance is the aura of him who rises above differences. "Anoché" also means reserve, the suspension of judgment, the tendency to cease-fire, giving the other a chance, tranquility and calm. When I think about it, the biblical terminology of tolerance - whether anoché, hypomonè (see Luke, 8, 15; 1st Corinthians, 13, 7), makrothymia (in the Old Testament the latter designates God's ability to rein in his wrath over human sins), or the Latin derivations (patientia, sustinentia, sufferentia) adopted in the works of the Church Fathers - leave later speculations little space for innovations. Modern tolerance is the worldly conversion of an ascetic virtue: patience, the ability to avoid prematurely classifying unclassifiable people and uncomfortable situations, the ability to understandingly endure difference, hindrance, and hostility, and the refusal to institute oneself as a judging authority. Avva Theodotos, a rather obscure monk in 4th-century Egypt, summed up the entire spectrum of tolerance (which at the same time presupposes the identification and acceptance of difference deviating from the norm) in the laconic sentence: "He who said 'Thou shalt not commit adultery' also said 'Thou shalt not judge others'."
How Christianity, with such a heritage, could itself become intolerant and why Islam, whose body of texts on tolerance is even more extensive than the Christian one is, became fanatical and merciless - that is another story. To tell it here and now would mean going far beyond the tolerance limits of your patience.