In Defense of Intolerance

Tolerance should not be an end in itself, and intolerance should not always be demonized. Intolerance is necessary to fight falsehoods and subjugation.



Intolerance has a disproportionally bad reputation. It is commonly defined as the unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behavior that differs from one’s own, and is often equated with bigotry and narrow-mindedness. But in well-meaning attempts to stem intolerance, modern society may have gone too far.

In some cases, such as that of religious intolerance, the bad reputation is warranted and intolerance must be fought. French philosopher Voltaire provides us such an example with his vigorous defense of religious toleration in the historical case of Jean Calas.

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Jean Calas was a Huguenot (French Protestant) merchant in Toulouse, France in the 1700s. France was then a mostly Roman Catholic country.  Catholicism was the state religion and individuals did not have the legal right to practice different faiths. On October 1761, one of Calas’ sons, MarcAntonie, was found dead in the family’s shop. It was then rumored that Jean Calas had killed his son because MarcAntonie intended to convert to Catholicism. Anti-Huguenot hysteria broke out among the Roman Catholic populace, and Calas was arrested and charged with having murdered his son to prevent his conversion to Catholicism.

At first, Calas attributed the crime to an unknown intruder, but later insisted that his son had committed suicide. It seems that, since suicide was then considered a crime against oneself, and the dead bodies of suicides were desecrated, Calas had arranged for his son’s suicide to look like a murder. Despite overwhelming evidence that the death was a suicide, Calas was brutally tortured in an attempt to get him to admit his guilt. He was broken on the wheel, strangled, and then burned to ashes, but he declared his innocence to the very end.

Voltaire became interested in the case, and through a vigorous press campaign, the philosopher convinced public opinion that anti-Protestant prejudices had influenced the case and that MarcAntonie had, in fact, committed suicide. Ultimately Jean Calas was posthumously exonerated and Voltaire, in his Treatise on Tolerance (1763), used the case to criticize the Catholic Church for its intolerance.

But what about other forms of intolerance such as political intolerance?  We live in a pluralistic democratic society that demands tolerance for political views. And yet, today’s political Left, on university campuses and elsewhere, has shown great political intolerance by demonizing those with a different worldview. The problem with this intolerance is not only its uncivility but that it fosters an “intellectual monoculture.” This indolent intolerance is self-contradictory.

There exists a relativist version of politically correct tolerance that is seriously misguided. This view holds that a tolerant person must be impartial and must take a neutral posture towards all other convictions. This relativist view maintains that no ideas are any better or truer than any other and therefore no judgment must be allowed. This toleration is also irrational.

Some ideas are better than others. There is such as thing as virtuous intolerance.  Our social discourse often claims that intolerance is unacceptable, and argues for the eradication of intolerance. This is nonsense; intolerance can be a force for good.  I am intolerant of the idea that our civil liberties should be restricted on the basis of gender, or race, or religion. I am intolerant of collectivist ideas that constraint our freedoms. I am intolerant of fundamentalist religions that are incompatible with democratic governance. I am intolerant of pedophiles. And I am intolerant of intellectual cowards that hurl insults instead of engaging in intelligent debate.  I guess I am not a very tolerant person.

It is not a question of tolerance or intolerance, but of championing truth, sound reasoning, and goodness. Tolerance should not be an end in itself, and intolerance should not always be demonized. Intolerance is necessary to fight falsehoods and subjugation.

Oppressed peoples should not be asked to be more tolerant of their governments; they should be encouraged to be visibly intolerant.  Sometimes, as Voltaire, we must fight intolerance. Other times, as Rosa Parks, we must be intolerant, disobey authority, and sit at the front of the bus.


Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”


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