Tolerance is only good for solving little problems

There’s an excellent comment on Greta’s post about the Secular Policy Club yesterday that I got permission to quote. The author is Llewelly.

Some of us still have quite vivid memories of how once there was quite a bit of agreement between PZ and most of these folks about the need to generate controversy together. We didn’t end up on different sides because some people sought to create artificial infighting. We ended up on different sides, because, a very serious problem was discovered, and some people suffer from it, while others benefit.

There’s anger and controversy because the issue at hand is a problem that causes a fair amount of harm, and so there’s no way to talk about it accurately without upsetting people … especially those who benefit from the current situation.

When you’ve got problem that benefits some people, while causing other people suffering, those people will not be able to agree, not because of rhetoric, but because of facts. And controversy will result. There’s no way to “work across the aisle” without perpetuating the problem.

When the truth is that certain ideas cause a great deal of harm, you can’t “work across the aisle” with the people who love those ideas, without making the people who love them very upset. That’s why most attempts of atheists to work with religious people have either failed or backfired. Where they’ve succeeded, it’s almost always been with very “liberal” religious people, who have few or no extreme beliefs, and instead have beliefs which say almost nothing about the world. In other words, “working across the aisle” only worked, because all the important differences were already gone.

There’s no “working across the aisle” on slavery, or bigotry, or abortion, or global warming, or sexual assault, or extreme religions, because there’s no way to talk about these problems accurately without saying that some peoples ideas are causing enormous harm.

Tolerance is only good for solving little problems. When it comes to big problems, tolerance can only help perpetuate the problems.

On the nose. This is why the Big Tent idea is so hard to sustain. It’s why groups splinter. It’s why we can’t all just get along.


  1. otrame says

    It is also why we can’t have nice things. If everyone would just agree with me–because I never lie and I am aways right–the world would be a peaceful place. But NO!!!!

    Or, to quote Pratchett:

    “William: “I’m sure we can all pull together, sir.”
    Vetinari: “Oh, I do hope not. Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.”

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