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We grapple with the question of tolerance and how to apply the notion in society. Theodore Dalrymple’s thoughts provide insight into the question of how the mechanics of tolerance works.

“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.”

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