The freedoms prized and secured in modern liberal democratic societies give rise to significant forms of moral and social diversity. In many cases, these forms of diversity must be dealt with by the state and its citizens. A standard way of trying to address social diversity is to call for toleration. But toleration can seem to have a dark side: it might appear that we tolerate only that which we, to some degree, disparage or disapprove of. In this way, toleration might also be a way of affirming one’s superiority to those whom one tolerates. Toleration, then, might look like an inappropriate response to diversity within a liberal democratic society.
In Respecting Toleration: Traditional Liberalism and Contemporary Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2017), Peter Balint defends toleration as the appropriate response to moral and social diversity in a liberal democratic political order. Drawing on a distinction between toleration as a general attitude of permissiveness, and tolerance as a more particular disposition of forbearance, Balint argues that a familiar form of liberal toleration is the proper response to moral and social diversity in a democratic society.
Here’s excerpt from Respecting Toleration:
Examples of toleration and its absence are not hard to find. Sini Saarela, a Finnish Greenpeace activist and vegan, who after being arrested by Russian officials and charged with piracy in 2013, was apparently starving in prison because her dietary requests were not being met. In the same year, a United States (US) Federal Judge ordered the Florida prison system to reinstate their Kosher meal plan for all prisoners with a ‘sincere religious basis.’ In the United Kingdom (UK), Hull Council seems to have tried to conceal its Muslim women-only swimming sessions by telling other users of the Beverley Road Baths that they were closed for staff training. But in the Australian state of Victoria, several local councils successfully applied for exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation to run such women-only swimming classes. Or take the case of gender identity, where in 2013 the Education Department of the US state of Massachusetts ruled that transgender students can access the locker room and changing facility that corresponds with their own gender identity. And similarly in 2013, the city council of Brighton and Hove in the UK announced its intention to degender its public toilets, stating that it wished to promote ‘gender neutrality’ and ‘build facilities which are open to all, regardless of sex.’ Or take the case of racist abuse. In 2014, in what is an all too common event a young mother was subjected to racist abuse on a Dublin Bus as she traveled with her three-month-old baby. While earlier on a Melbourne bus, Fanny Desaintjores was subjected to racist abuse by other passengers after she started singing in French as she traveled home. Or take the case of traditional pastimes and animal rights. Traditional fox hunting has been illegal in the UK since 2004, but over in Ireland traditional hunts still continue. And finally, take the case of cultural/religious practices and their impact on others. In Philadelphia, the St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church was told its 7 a.m. bell was too loud and could lead to a $700 daily fine if it violated the city’s noise ordinance—a woman had complained that the bell was ‘disrupting her quality of life.’ On a much broader scale, a 2009 Swiss referendum led to the banning of the building of any new minarets on either existing or future mosques.
These sorts of cases—and there are a great many more possible examples—pervade contemporary life. Sometimes these issues make it into the media, and occasionally even stay there for more than one news cycle. Often though, unless one is a participant, we do not hear of them at all. For those involved, media focus often matters little. What matters to them is that they can undertake meaningful religious and cultural practices, use the toilet of their choice, be left alone on public transport, follow their chosen occupation, or engage in their hobbies. In other words, they can do or be the thing they want relatively unimpeded by the actions of others. For the people who are restricted in these ways, the easing of impediments—whether institutional or social, intentional or unintentional—matters a great deal. Of course, often these impediments are entirely justified; we all wish we could do all sorts of things unimpeded by the actions of others. But often the justifications for these restrictions are insufficient and unreflected upon.
In this book, I want to defend both the ideal and the practice of political toleration in response to the issues raised by the diversity that exists in contemporary liberal democracies. Not only do our societies contain religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity, but also racial, sexual, moral, and lifestyle diversity. Although I will invoke principles and practices associated with traditional liberalism, my conclusions are far from conservative. Applying toleration and its cognate neutrality in this sphere commonly suggests radical change, and change that can challenge the status quo and benefit many minorities. My argument will not be that the claims of those who want to do or be somehow different need recognition and that their differences should be respected—whether by the state or their fellow citizens—but that the things that are making their ends more difficult to achieve may not be justified, and alternative arrangements may well be possible. In brief, this is the good of a tolerant society; it is a society in which, comparatively speaking, people are freer to do/be what they want.