Why Do We Tolerate the Intolerable?

The acuteness of Howard Rotberg’s book Tolerism: The Ideology  Revealed, now in its second, updated edition, lies in the ease with which readers will grasp his coinage. We know what he is referring to as soon as he begins to identify its salient features, as if the word has been around for a while. Indeed, the phenomenon is so widespread and so bizarre that it deserves its own term -- and Rotberg’s bracing dissection.

Tolerism is a worldview in which the tolerance of cultural “otherness” -- the more violently anti-Western the better -- has become Western elites’ most celebrated (perhaps their sole) value, before which all other values, of justice, freedom, intellectual inquiry, or political dissent, have given way. Rotberg posits that it is precisely the abandonment of traditional Judeo-Christian principles and the adoption of a pernicious, unmoored moral relativism that have enabled tolerance (though it is not very tolerant) to assume its unchallenged status as the absolute virtue. The particular focus and defining example of tolerism in our post-9/11 world is Western accommodation of radical Islam: the more violent and hateful the jihadists show themselves to be, the more insistent the tolerists are about the need to empathize with them.

Tolerism is not the same as simple tolerance, Rotberg explains, referring to the history of religious and political toleration as an enlightened recognition of reciprocal accommodation under which tolerance is only one among other, guiding, values. Once elevated to the status of an ideology in itself, however, tolerism is a belief system that requires the uncritical embrace of otherness not for some rational social benefit but as a proof of the tolerists’ moral rectitude; as such, it spells the end of proper discrimination and judgement, and results in the self-contradictory acceptance and encouragement of terrorists and rogue states that are themselves murderously intolerant.

Under the reign of tolerism, the so-called tolerant lose the ability to recognize or appraise evil, believing that fanatics can be placated if only westerners are willing to understand their point of view. Efforts on the part of the committed few to resist Islamic triumphalism are decried as “intolerant,” the mere charge thought sufficient to end all argument. As a result, the betrayal of traditional liberal institutions and rights -- through press censorship, the suppression of academic freedom, selective blindness about abhorrent cultural practices -- becomes acceptable, even mandatory, and Islam makes steady inroads upon its host culture.

The other side of tolerism, as we see, is a detestation of and determination to silence those who dissent from the pro-Islamist worldview. Also evident among the tolerists is an abiding antipathy towards the Jewish state of Israel, and Rotberg is indefatigable in showing how such hatred is revealed in everything from wildly inequitable United Nations resolutions to false reporting in the mainstream press about Palestinian casualties. In Rotberg’s apt formulation, the tolerist position “expresses more concern about Israel erecting a security fence to protect citizens than about the intentional targeting of those civilians, and obscures the fact that there would be no checkpoints and no fences if the Palestinians would give up their fantasy of ejecting the Jewish state from the Middle East.” Such evocative formulations are at the heart of this fine study.

Rotberg buttresses his analysis of tolerism’s signs and effects with an arresting diagnosis of it as the signature psychopathology of our time. He proposes that large segments of the West, including a leftist cohort in Israel, have fallen prey to a mass psychosis characterized by self-hatred and a deluded faith in the good will of those sworn to their destruction. He cites Kenneth Levin’s The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege, on the manner in which citizens under existential threat “often end up internalizing the hatred against themselves.”