Tolerance, Relativism, or Mutual Respect

Bernard Lewis comparing Islam, Chrisitanity, and Judaism in The Atalantic notes that the notion of tolerance is extremely intolerant: That we should strive instead for mutual respect. I would add that the absence of mutual respect is implicitly a condition of war (perhaps recognized by only one side).

Tolerance is, of course, an extremely intolerant idea, because it means “I am the boss: I will allow you some, though not all, of the rights I enjoy as long as you behave yourself according to standards that I shall determine.” That, I think, is a fair definition of religious tolerance as it is normally understood and applied. In a letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, that George Washington wrote in 1790, he remarked, perhaps in an allusion to the famous “Patent of Tolerance” promulgated by the Austrian Emperor Joseph II a few years previously, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” At a meeting of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Vienna some years ago the Cardinal Archbishop Franz Koenig spoke of tolerance, and I couldn’t resist quoting Washington to him. He replied, “You are right. I shall no more speak of tolerance; I shall speak of mutual respect.” There are still too few who share the attitude expressed in this truly magnificent response.


4 Responses to Tolerance, Relativism, or Mutual Respect

  1. josh says:

    when you are correct about a moral issue, as you are with this one, it makes your massive ignorance and stubbornness about iraq and the bush administration so much more painful to deal with.

  2. Morgan says:

    But doesn’t “mutual respect” have the same problem that “tolerance” does? IE, mutual respect is effectively saying, “I will respect you as long as you behave yourself according to standards that I shall determine.”


  3. ooghe says:

    i think the reason it differs is because the term ‘respect’, in your formulation, is meant to imply ‘i will behave according to standards you deem as appropriate’ rather than ‘i will set my own definition of standards towards you that you will accept’. Of course, if this allows two entirely separate moral standards, the problem arises when the definition of one moral standard completely contradicts the other- e.g. Rep. Santorum observing that his religious rights are being violated when presented with open displays of homosexuality.

  4. diane says:

    Josh, yeah! Yay, Alex! More of the same!

    The undercurrent of contempt in tolerance is one of the problems I think you’re getting at. Martha Nussbaum has a fine theoretical discussion of contempt (enlivened with examples from her own life, literature and the news) in one of her newer books, “Upheavals of Thought:The Intelligence of Emotions” and also a new book-length treatment of contempt in relation to shame, disgust, and the law (“Hiding from Humanity”).

    I’m halfway through the first, which is really excellent, but the going is slow because it’s a serious tome requiring a longer attention span than I usually have. The second is not out in ppb so I haven’t read it yet & can’t say how good it is. She links contempt, shame and disgust clearly to racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-semitism.

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