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In Defense of Tolerance
Justin Ahn '24 Associate Editor
November 18, 2021

In How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way argue that the health and stability of American democracy depend on the “understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals” — on mutual tolerance. However, in recent years, participants in political discourse mistake an opposing argument’s perceived incorrectness for illegitimacy. Unfortunately, “your opinion is wrong” is being substituted by “you can’t possibly be right.” Even the most righteous and well-supported viewpoint must accept objections, because the process of tolerance and free speech is important.

Tolerance fails when we refuse to acknowledge the variety of moral foundations, and instead argue that anyone who supports a stance contrary to our preferences is either misguided or simply immoral. Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph pioneered a theory that relates political disagreements to fundamental values. Care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity motivate people to support certain stances, though some may prioritize certain values over others when they come into conflict. Liberals might hear “authority” and suspect oppressive motives, while conservatives might hear “fairness” and fear communist implications. 

In these cases, outright condemnation is incredibly dangerous because it turns a political conflict into an attack on an opponent’s character, activating defense mechanisms and making amendments more difficult to accept. Condemnation turns discourse into a moral battleground, where we prop ourselves up only by pushing our opponents down, instead of a collaborative exchange. Progressive activism can be prone to abandoning its aspirational quality in favor of disparaging social conservatives. On the other hand, former President Donald Trump adopted a dangerous authoritarian tactic by labeling critics “enemies of the American people,” a rhetoric that many Republicans implicitly echo. 

Condescension is equally dangerous, as it treats an opponent’s argument as trivial and not deserving of respect, creating conversations that fail to broaden our perspectives and merely reinforce mutual hostility. Arguments can be misinformed, immature, or unoriginal, but we often reach this conclusion about opinions too early, without giving them fair consideration. We should always first assume that an opponent has a legitimate argument, and listen to refutations for genuine understanding.

While we have different values, and different notions of justice, we can still adopt common values to prop up liberal democratic exchanges. Intellectual humility should be espoused, since a stubborn belief in one’s own inherent correctness stifles the ability to interact on an equal footing with others. Also, we should learn to be comfortable with discomfort, since mutual tolerance requires that we can have actual, profound disagreements without running away from direct interactions altogether. I respect Young Republicans who attend Young Democrats meetings or vice versa, and these students are often happy to absorb and build up discussion, contrary to the stereotype of an aggressively disputatious partisan. I respect those who ask questions simply to field various perspectives, then follow up personally with others from across the spectrum, facilitating and vitalizing discourse. 

We should be wary of rhetoric that devalues mutual tolerance. Political polarization, for instance, can contribute to a toxic culture where particular issues are too important and indisputable to the point where tolerance of thought is frequently disbanded. Demagogues or extremists can introduce a perceived threat, purportedly from a specific bogeyman or a different identity group, to activate impulses that seek to defeat the exigent threat, even at the cost of tolerance. Exceptions to tolerance or “do not accept” clauses must be rigorously scrutinized, regardless of how legitimate the premise or innocent the intent, because of the inherent importance of tolerance in a democratic community.

I have noticed that Deerfield often self-segregates into liberal, conservative, and apathetic circles when sensitive political topics arise, even while we intermingle in an array of circumstances daily. Intellectual humility and comfort with discomfort is integral to building a campus that is tolerant not only of people but also of thoughts. This is a disposition that can be taught in classes and workshops, fostered by joint club activities, and rehearsed in forums, but it first requires us to acknowledge that our opponents deserve to be heard just as much as us, and that disagreements should be extended and not avoided. Embed these attitudes even into casual, everyday conversations with friends and fellow students, when teachers or activity leaders aren’t there to point out the lack thereof, instead of condemning and condescending when we are socially licensed to.

Political discourse happens more often than you would think, in the Dining Hall, on Albany Road, and on Instagram, so recognize moments that call for mutual tolerance.