Tolerance and Its Limits

When I asked my young patients what their best qualities were, they would almost invariably reply: “I am tolerant and non-judgmental.”

“If you don’t judge people,” I would ask, “how can you be tolerant?”

They did not grasp at once what I meant, so I would explain:

“If you disapprove of nothing, there is nothing to tolerate. You do not tolerate what you like or agree with; you tolerate what you dislike or disagree with. If you make no judgments, tolerance is redundant, there is nothing to tolerate.”

The misunderstanding of what tolerance is the explanation, perhaps, of a paradox: the more we extol tolerance as a virtue, the less tolerant we become. We become like the humourless man who says that he has a wonderful sense of humor.

Back in the 1960s, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse popularised the notion of “repressive tolerance.” According to this notion, the freedom to express any opinion without fear of retribution actually resulted in, or at any rate served, repression because it duped people into supposing that they were free. Yes, they could say anything they liked, but in practice they lived in a society in which they decided nothing for themselves and in which they were straitjacketed by laws, conventions, moral codes and so forth, all to the material benefit of a small elite, of course (Marcuse was some kind of Marxist). This notion, which was expressed in the dullest of prose, was appealing to utopian adolescents who a) wanted to deny that they were the most fortunate generation who had ever lived, and b) dreamed of a life completely without restraints on their own pleasure.

Half a century later, “repressive tolerance” is taking on a different meaning, one that actually has some practical application. It is repression carried out in the name of tolerance.

In the Netherlands, the politician Geert Wilders has been found guilty of contravening two related provisions of the criminal code: inciting to discrimination, and expressing hatred toward a racial group. In his decidedly populist fashion, Wilders asked the crowd that he was addressing whether they wanted more or less interference in Dutch affairs from the European Union, more or less power for the Dutch Labor Party, and more or fewer Moroccans. Like a shrewd advocate, he knew in advance how his listeners would respond.

There is no jury trial in the Netherlands. A judge alone decides the guilt or innocence of an accused person. To the already loose and somewhat sinister charges themselves was thus added the prejudice of the judge, overwhelmingly likely in the Netherlands to be politically correct. And the judge, to no one’s surprise, found Wilders guilty. But the Netherlands being the Netherlands, the punishment was less than severe: the judge held that the mere fact of being found guilty was punishment enough for the wayward politician.

Nevertheless, Wilders is going to appeal. From his point of view the more publicity he can give to the case, the better for his cause. It will do him no good, however, at least if his aim is political power rather than acting as a gadfly on the periphery of Dutch politics. For even if he should emerge as the political leader with the most votes in the general elections slated for March, he will never have, under the Dutch system of proportional representation, an absolute parliamentary majority and he will never be able to form, or even participate in, a government. The most he can hope for is to change the nature and subject matter of Dutch political debate.

In order to secure the conviction, the judge had to maintain that the Moroccans were a race, because the law did not recognize nationality or national origin as grounds for legal protection from insult and critical comment. This gave rise to a certain amount of hilarity. If nationality were to be confounded with race, Dutch law would henceforth have to recognize a Belgian race, a Swiss race, et cetera.

But the very idea that there are certain groups in need of special protection from offence is both incoherent and condescending, partaking of the very qualities that the idea is supposed to be eliminating from the wicked human mind. The number of human groups that have, or could be, subjected to humiliation, discrimination, or worse is almost infinite. Persecution on economic grounds, for example, has been at least as frequent as persecution on racial grounds. To select a few groups for special protection is therefore irreducibly discriminatory. It is a little like protecting certain species from the ravages of hunters because they are threatened with extinction and unlike other species are unable to protect themselves by fecundity, say, or by camouflage.

This is not to say that all things that should be allowed to be said without legal penalty ought to be said. There must always be a distinction between legal and moral permissibility—a distinction which, with the relentless advance of the administrative state, is in danger of being lost, so that people now say, when justifying morally dubious behavior, “There’s no law against it, is there?”

When Wilders, then, asks a crowd whether it wants more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands, I immediately try to put myself in the position of a young Moroccan, or Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent, and imagine what it is like to be regarded by a popular politician, almost ex officio, as a nuisance or a plague, even though all I want to do is to fit in with the wider society around me. I think it takes very little imagination to understand how uncomfortable it would be.

At the same time, it would be incumbent upon me as an immigrant or descendent of an immigrant to try to understand why the majority population might not want their society to be fundamentally altered by immigration and why they might be in favor of a limitation of numbers of immigrants. In fact, it is by no means uncommon for members of immigrant groups themselves to wish such a limitation, for fear of provoking a reaction or backlash against them.

What is certain is that tact, and imaginative sympathy for others, cannot be legislated. The clumsy attempt to decree tolerance will inflame, and has inflamed, the very opposite.

Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

About the Author

Recent Popular Posts

Related Posts


  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    “Tolerance is Love, sick with the sickness of haughtiness.”

    Kahlil Gibran

    I think that recollection of his statement is correct.

  2. says

    Social morality seems intolerable. Humans may need civic morality. The goal of a civic culture is broadly-defined-civic-safety-and-security.

    Civic morality collaborates for public-integrity as each person’s opportunity for private-liberty-with-civic-morality. The human being is so powerful it takes about three decades to transition from newborn person to adult with understanding and intent to live fully, but some take more than three decades.

    Persons who reject public-integrity are appreciated as-they-are-where-they-are in their journey toward psychological maturity with one provision: A civic culture is intolerant of harm as defined by statutory law, and the perpetrator may suffer law enforcement.

    Wilders and others may accept that social morality is an attempt to “civilize” people according to some rational standard. But the human being is too psychologically powerful and is intolerant of civilization (verb): The human being responds to discovery. Thus, he or she does neither throws sand into the wind and is intolerant of such behavior.

    A moral culture may be established by willing people who take the time to iteratively collaborate for civic justice and nudge their government toward public-integrity.

  3. nobody.really says

    On tolerance:

    In G.K. Chesterton’s The Secret of Father Brown , a beloved and generous nobleman kills his wastrel brother in a duel and then sends himself into exile. Thirty years later he returns, wracked by guilt. The townspeople welcome him with open arms—and mock Father Brown for refusing to grant forgiveness except after the nobleman engages in penance and self-reflection. They lecture the priest on the virtues of charity and compassion.

    Later they learn that the beloved nobleman did not kill his good-for-nothing brother; rather, it was the good-for-nothing brother who killed the nobleman—and then stole his identity. This revelation changes everything, and the townspeople now want the man lynched. Everything has changed—except Father Brown, who steadfastly continues to offer forgiveness following penance and self-reflection.

    In response to the townfolk’s sputtering objections, Brown says—

    It seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. You forgive a conventional duel just as you forgive a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.

    • George Carter says

      Okay, Father Brown stories have just been ordered on Amazon.

      Orthodoxy was a great help to me but was never sure whether to go for his story collections. Thank you kindly!

  4. nobody.really says

    There must always be a distinction between legal and moral permissibility—a distinction which, with the relentless advance of the administrative state, is in danger of being lost, so that people now say, when justifying morally dubious behavior, “There’s no law against it, is there?”

    Now people say this? For what it’s worth, Google Book’s Ngram reveals that the incidence of the published phrase “no law against it” peaked in 1820, and has declined since then—which hardly implicates that the administrative state. (However, the phrases “not against the law” and “no illegal” have grown in popularity over time, so maybe there’s something to it…)

    The clumsy attempt to decree tolerance will inflame, and has inflamed, the very opposite.

    1. Clumsy? The judge stated his conclusion yet imposed no sanction other than the moral suasion of his words. Thus did the judge deprive the defendant with a meaningful opportunity to defy any court order. And this is a conviction in name only. It looks very much like a statement about morality rather than legality. You can agree or disagree with the judge’s ruling, but it strikes me as a rather deft means for sending social signals.

    2. Has the Dutch law actually provoked the animus alleged? Thanks to the US’s 1st Amendment, the US has no such laws—yet Donald Trump et al. continue to remonstrate about Mexicans and Muslims. Thus, it’s far from clear to me that the Dutch law is the source of this kind of tribal tension. Feel free to disapprove of the Dutch law, but let’s not blame that law for a dynamic that transcends Holland.

  5. Kiljoy says

    ‘He will never be able to form, or participate, in a government.’ Populism? Tribalism? Call it what you will… I know next to nothing about the Dutch political system but I’m pretty sure, unless Wilders is assassinated, The Dutch will get their man, and he will not only participate in but implement serious political change… the situation is desperate

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>