"I will tolerate everything except intolerance!"

When it is pointed out that liberalism* is not some value-neutral arbiter of the political/social scene, but is itself a value-laden position, we often hear the above response. (Apparently liberals' supposed love for "original thinking" is not as strong as they imagine.)

I have pointed out before this assertion is essentially meaningless, because what it comes down to in practice is "I will call positions/actions/speech acts I don't like 'intolerant,' so that then I do not have to tolerate them!"

Let us look at a simple examples: consider a Muslim who tolerates arranged marriages for children, but not cartoons mocking Mohammed. A liberal will refer to that Muslim as "intolerant" of free speech. But the Muslim can just as correctly assert that the liberal is intolerant of arranged child marriages. Of course, the Liberals will protest, "What nonsense! A cartoon mocking Mohammed is just someone exercising their right to self-expression, while arranged child marriages are an abomination!" But just as clearly, the Muslim feels the exact opposite: there is nothing wrong whatsoever with arranged child marriages, while it is cartoons mocking Mohammed that are the abomination.

So what the claim "I will tolerate everything except intolerance!" really means is "I will tolerate anything my liberal values tell me is tolerable, while I won't tolerate anything that they tell me is intolerable." But now we can reply, "So what? Isn't that what everyone else does?"

The real question is, "Who is tolerating the things that ought to be tolerated and not tolerating things that ought not to be tolerated?" And yes, liberals have attempted to answer that more difficult question with, for example, On Liberty, and many other works. But that doesn't mean more light-weight liberals like Karl Popper aren't being fatuous in patting themselves on the back for their tolerance: he wants to tolerate everything but illiberalism: but so the communist wants to tolerate everything but anti-communism, and the Sharia-law enthusiast everything but a rejection of Sharia law.

* And once again, I am using the word 'liberal' in the political theory sense, in which almost all of American politics is liberal, with the Democrats being left-liberal and the Republicans right-liberal.


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