Thomas Aquinas argued that human law, because it is “framed for a number of human beings the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue,” should not criminalize every vice. Instead, he argued, the civil power should ban “only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain.”
Needless to say, Aquinas was not a relativist. Thomas never denied that the acts in question were, in fact, vicious—violations of the divine law for which the offender could lose his eternal soul. His suggestion that the state “tolerate” certain vicious behaviors was a prudential concession to human nature, not an endorsement of vice.
Tolerance, both as a prudential concession to human nature and as a liberal value, has fallen out of fashion. In part, this is because tolerance is judgmental. To “tolerate” something—a poorly cooked meal, an annoying houseguest, the garish paint job on your neighbor’s house—acknowledges the existence a standard from which the tolerated thing deviates. You “tolerate” your neighbor’s stupid yard sign not because “Science Is Real” qualifies as a penetrating insight, but because you want to be polite.
British philosopher John Gray made this point in a 1992 essay, “Toleration: And the Currently Offensive Implication of Judgement.” He argued that, in spite of its hippy-dippy connotations, exercising tolerance actually requires “strong moral convictions.”
“When we tolerate a practice, a belief or a character trait, we let something be that we judge undesirable, false or at least inferior,” Gray wrote. “[O]ur toleration expresses the conviction that, despite its badness, the object of toleration should be left alone.”
It is because of this implication of judgement that tolerance has fallen out of fashion in favor of what the White House calls “affirmation,” that is, an unqualified endorsement of a person’s beliefs and choices. Behind this shift is the belief that nothing is really true or false, that what matters is not whether the emperor has clothes, only whether he’ll be really upset if you tell him he’s naked. The demand for affirmation always comes from a place of insecurity.
Secure people don’t care that other people hold them and their beliefs in contempt. There are plenty of people who merely “tolerate” my Catholic faith, for example, and some believe I’m going to suffer unthinkable torments for all eternity for failing to reverence Muhammad or observe the Jewish Sabbath. A few of them will tell me that to my face, which, given their convictions, is an act of charity. The fact that people might disapprove of my religious profession and think worms will pick at my flesh in eternal hellfire doesn’t particularly bother me, partially because I can’t control what they believe, and partially because I think they are wrong.
If you are insecure, however, if you don’t believe in your heart of hearts that your beliefs are aligned with reality or your actions are defensible, then the fact that “tolerance” implies judgment of the behavior or belief in question leads you to demand affirmation instead. The demand for affirmation has reached the heights of our institutions. The Biden White House, for instance, has promoted “gender-affirming care,” hormonal and surgical interventions coupled with emotional reassurance, for people experiencing gender dysphoria. A Washington University report similarly called on the school to “create campuses at which sexual minority people would not be merely tolerated, but in fact, validated, affirmed, and celebrated as a vital part of the mosaic of diversity.” In both cases, the people involved are presumed to be so insecure that if even one person refuses to acknowledge their chosen identity, their entire sense of self will crumble like a house of cards.
We don’t extend this principle of affirmation to people with other “identities.” We don’t tell the Democratic activist to accept the premises of Republican politicians so as to protect that politician’s partisan identity. We don’t tell the Muslim who sincerely believes this author will spend an eternity mired in flame that he must “affirm” and “validate” the specific religious claims made by Christianity so as to preserve my feelings. But the Colorado Civil Rights Commission will drag an obscure religious baker through the court system for years for refusing to bake a cake to affirm a gay couple.
Tolerance, whatever its demerits, at least allows people with serious convictions to amicably disagree with one another. Affirmation demands universal participation, even if we think the thing what we’re being asked to affirm is wrong. The former has become unfashionable because, as Gray put it, we live in a “post-Christian age” allergic “to the thought that we are flawed creatures whose lives will always contain evils.”
about the author
John Hirschauer is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He was previously a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review and a staff writer at RealClear.