Activists gag a lion statue outside the Spanish Congress in protest against the “Muzzle Act” 2015. Pedro Armestre (EFE)

We are told every now and then that it is difficult for tolerance to flourish nowadays because of religion, especially monotheistic religions.  Adepts of these religions return that it is not so for a variety of reasons. To my mind, both arguments are flawed.

When dealing with these issues, if we do not want to play the firefighter in the North Pole or the man preventing floods in the Sahara, we cannot dispense with practical aspects, because morality, politics, and law are practical sciences (in the Aristotelian sense).

My point is simple: despite the appearances to the contrary, Western societies have become rather intolerant, religion or no religion. We have plenty of examples.

The Eurocrats were very intolerant to Greece during the recent financial crisis — when their “austericide” policies were turning Greece nearly into a scorched earth wasteland, they did not soften their stance.

In Spain, open intolerance of Catalan independence reigns today — King Felipe himself stated that Catalans could expect no negotiation. Freedom of expression and to peacefully demonstrate against the government have been so severely curtailed after the so-called Ley Mordaza (“Muzzle Act”, 2015), that demonstrating is no longer a resource available to citizens.

Fashionable messages of ‘zero tolerance’ proliferate in many a country. Avoiding taxes — the primus primi political instinct of any sane person — is not just forbidden but nearly demonized in most countries.

Political correction is indirectly bringing about the expulsion of the ‘other’, as sociologist Byung-Chul Han, points out. And so on.

Although the word ‘toleration' was born during the religious conflicts of the 16th Century, toleration today is far from being mostly a religious problem — and it is not a problem of more or less democracy, either. Deep in its heart of hearts, it is a problem of how we cope with evil, while we are on this side of eternity.

This being so, the battle for toleration is not fought mainly on religious terrain. Contemporary politics, law, culture, and social organization do not provide a good soil for tolerance to flourish, whatever the Panglossian official documents proclaim.

Several causes of this phenomenon can be discerned.

To start with, the 20th Century notion that every human predicament and every personal pain can and should be mended by the state — and as soon as possible — does not go along well with the style of governance needed for tolerance to grow — ‘quieta non movere’, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it”, etc.

What follows is the notion that every situation must be regulated by laws. Thus, legal reasoning comes to be the only way of discussing conflicts, even if they are not legal in nature (e.g., political conflicts).

Rights talk (see Mary Ann Glendon’s magisterial book) is widespread and tends towards an all-or-nothing confrontational style that may preclude tolerance. Framing arguments only in rights-based language makes political arrangements difficult, as can be seen in the aforementioned Catalan conflict.

Intriguingly, legalism goes along well with relativism: since no basic shared vision exists in society, let us trust the laws with the task of telling what is right or wrong. This empowerment of the law explains why, once something previously held as wrong is legalized, it becomes a trump card that may generate intolerance to all other positions — just think of several LGBTI-related issues.

In the end, everything that is not prohibited by law is vulnerable to being expelled from public life — either forbidden or relegated to strictly personal, private terrain — unless it becomes legally compulsory.

Needless to say, this immoderate legalism, especially if combined with rule by experts, fosters intolerance. Common sense, rule-of-thumb wisdom, and other sources of law, such as equity, wither away.

Algorithms, automated decisions and artificial intelligence applied to law equally hinder toleration. Unlike Roman law and Canon law, machines do not soften the “rigor iuris”.

A perfectionist, puritan society

Toleration refers to persons rather than to actions, institutions or ideologies. It implies accepting that no one is perfect, that many problems can perhaps never be fully solved, and that the absolutization of some goals, however reasonable (e.g., fighting money laundering), would come at a cost.

Certainly, ours is not a culture which is puritanical or perfectionist when dealing with moral righteousness, religion, aesthetics, and good manners. But, concerning other aspects (gender inequalities, minor tax evasion, verbal offenses), it is very perfectionist and puritanical.

Some very human, ordinary shortcomings and limitations, as well as other everyday failures (not to fully attain one’s goals, for example), once part and parcel of our lives, may be now seen as intolerable.

Paradoxically, although far from perfectionist, toleration is intrinsically judgmental, a British sociologist Frank Furedi contends. If you are unable to tell your right hand from your left you are unlikely to pronounce a judgment of real toleration.

Tolerance being inherently judgmental, relativism tends to weaken it, no matter the popular belief to the contrary. Relativists, if serious, have little to tolerate because everything would be indifferent to them.

If such a distinction as good/wrong cannot exist, then nobody is wrong, and if nobody is wrong, nobody is right, and nobody has anything to tolerate.

The typical 21st Century perfectionist, puritanical motto of “zero tolerance”, understood as a general principle for attacking very bad or wrong actions on the basis that they are very bad, makes little sense because toleration was born just to deal with the bad and the wrong.

This is not to deny that on a casuistic basis, many actions may be found to be excluded from the benefit of toleration. But if literal “zero tolerance” becomes a general principle, it would make itself redundant.

For dealing with good or indifferent affairs no particular concept is needed. No one in his or her senses would say they “tolerate” things which are good, fair, enjoyable, or whimsical. Should I be given a Nobel Prize, my wife would not “tolerate” me.

Were toleration to exclude wrong and awful actions qua wrong and awful, it would become pointless.

Another important reason why “zero tolerance” is erroneous is that tolerance, like respect, is not for actions, doctrines or ideologies, but for persons.

We pay due respect even to the corpse of the worst criminal, while no respect at all is paid to his crimes. We do not tolerate in the least the doctrine that 2 plus 2 make 7 but we have to tolerate the people holding that doctrine.

Tolerant societies

History shows that some cultures have been more inclined to toleration than others. The Romans took a fancy to occasionally torturing Christians but generally speaking Roman culture and law made a good soil for toleration.

Toleration also flourished in the Ottoman, the British and the Austro-Hungarian Empires — interestingly, all four were empires, not states.

In medieval Spain there were internecine wars but there was also much toleration, from Moors to vanquished Christians, from Christians to conquered Moors and Jews.

Intriguingly, when Spain took to state building, both Jews and Moriscos were expelled, a precedent for modern ethnic cleansing that was quite at odds with the Mediaeval, pre-Statist frame of mind that had been usual in Spain.

How important is tolerance?

In the end, how important is tolerance, one wonders. It is neither the highest virtue nor the highest political goal, we must concede.

Yet, in our present predicament, whether a virtue in itself or a by-product of prudence and mercy, tolerance is very important for social life to go on smoothly, as may be seen in the aftermath of civil wars, or when quite different people have to coexist, or when the old agreement on fundamentals is gone, as happens in many Western countries nowadays.

Antonio-Carlos Pereira Menaut is Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia.