Faced with Intolerance, We Can Only Make the Case for Decency ; Pim Fortuyn Pointed Up the Moral Ambiguity of Our Age and the Limits to Toleration
Blackburn, Simon, The Independent (London, England)
The spectre of relativism gibbers again. Pluralism, multiculturalism, toleration itself, are on trial. In New York after 11 September, Mayor Giuliani berated these evils to the United Nations, as if we need zealotry to confront the zealotry of others.
A lot of people share his fears, to judge by the rather smug reaction in this country to the assassination of Pim Fortuyn. Until this week the Netherlands occupied an enviable place in many minds. It was not just a matter of sexual diversities and pot. For centuries it has been a haven for refugees. Spinoza escaped persecution there, and the greatest English architect of the Enlightenment, John Locke, lived there in the years before the English revolution of 1688. It was during this exile that he wrote his great works on human knowledge, government, and toleration. The United States (or even, God help us, Britain) likes to think of itself as uniquely free, but the Netherlands is the real thing. It is tolerant and egalitarian. It is a nice place to be. It comes as a surprise to learn that the Dutch breed politicians at all, let alone right-wing politicians and assassins. It is like discovering that one of the young women in a Vermeer is reading her letter to rap music, or that one of Cuyp's idyllic scenes of fat, brown cows conceals a rifleman from the ministry, just out of the frame.
But even in this blessed state toleration turns out to have its limits. Pim Fortuyn struck a chord by campaigning against the immigration of people perceived as intolerant. And he may have had a point: bigotry is a nasty virus, always ready to invade any easy- going host. Tolerance is one of the things the intolerant despise. And it can be a difficult virtue to defend. If you hold an opinion, then how are you to tolerate its denial? If the view that the Earth is roughly spherical has everything going for it, then there is something wrong with the view that the Earth is flat. So there is something wrong with people who hold that view. Happily, thanks to Locke and the Enlightenment, we in the West no longer hold that error is illegal. We do not have to lock Flat-Earthers up as heretics. We can look on them with amusement and pass them by. We can be polite, but we cannot be entirely even-handed. For, after all, their view is not as good as ours, the true view. We can be open-minded, but not so open- minded that all our brains fall out.
In matters of ethics and morality, it is not so clear to many people that there is just one true view. The spherical nature of the Earth is a solid, objective fact. Issues of right and wrong, virtue and vice are less clearly visible. There are no instruments for detecting values, no book of nature giving us instructions how to live. Science tells what is the case, not what ought to be the case. So ethics strikes many people more as a realm of opinion. We find it hard to deny that the views of others are just as good as our view, and difficult to maintain that our view is, uniquely, the true view. So we would like to be tolerant, and let a thousand flowers bloom.
Unfortunately, these are the areas that throw up the issues about which we will not agree to differ. A convinced Flat-Earther strikes us merely as deluded or silly. But a person who holds that women ought not to be educated, or that they ought to be mutilated, or that we of the West need to be destroyed, is much worse. Deluded, surely, but also dangerous, and wicked. …