Tolerance Is A Peace Treaty And A Social Compact, Nothing More

Despite people in the D.C. area being very passionate about politics, there is a ‘cease fire’ when people aren’t on the clock: political figures should be able to go to the grocery store without being heckled. This tolerance is not built on some great ethical principle, instead it is simply an accommodation that enables this city to function: I think Republican Senator Tom Cotton is an odious shithead, but there are Republicans who feel the same way about Sen. Elizabeth Warren, so people observe the local social compact and leave them alone.

Even though there is a great deal of public religiosity, I’m pretty certain it has little to do with high-minded beliefs about all people being created in the image of God. It’s just one of those things people do to get by in day-to-day life.

Which, in light of the recent kerfuffle over whether neo-Nazi Richard Spencer should have been punched in the face, brings us to this observation (boldface mine):

We have been brought up to believe that tolerating other people is one of the things you do if you’re a nice person — whether we learned this in kindergarten or from Biblical maxims like “love your neighbor as yourself” and “do unto others.”

But if you have ever tried to live your life this way, you will have seen it fail: “Why won’t you tolerate my intolerance?” This comes in all sorts of forms: accepting a person’s actively antisocial behavior because it’s just part of being an accepting group of friends; being told that prejudice against Nazis is the same as prejudice against Black people; watching people try to give “equal time” to a religious (or irreligious) group whose guiding principle is that everyone must join them or else.

Every one of these examples should raise your suspicions that something isn’t right; that tolerance be damned, one of these things is not like the other….

Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty. Tolerance is a social norm because it allows different people to live side-by-side without being at each other’s throats. It means that we accept that people may be different from us, in their customs, in their behavior, in their dress, in their sex lives, and that if this doesn’t directly affect our lives, it is none of our business. But the model of a peace treaty differs from the model of a moral precept in one simple way: the protection of a peace treaty only extends to those willing to abide by its terms. It is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.

This is a variation on the old saw that “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” We often forget (or ignore) that no right is absolute, because one person’s rights can conflict with another’s. This is why freedom of speech doesn’t protect extortion, and the right to bear arms doesn’t license armed robbery. Nor is this limited to rights involving the state; people can interfere with each other’s rights with no government involved, as when people use harassment to suppress other people’s speech. While both sides of that example say they are “exercising their free speech,” one of them is using their speech to prevent the other’s: these are not equivalent. The balance of rights has the structure of a peace treaty.

Unlike absolute moral precepts, treaties have remedies for breach. If one side has breached another’s rights, the injured party is no longer bound to respect the treaty rights of their assailant — and their response is not an identical violation of the rules, even if it looks superficially similar to the original breach. “Mommy, Timmy hit me back!” holds no more ethical weight among adults than it does among children.

But how does this not lead to violence? Easy–it is contingent on reciprocity:

What this teaches us is that tolerance, viewed as a moral absolute, amounts to renouncing the right to self-protection; but viewed as a peace treaty, it can be the basis of a stable society. Its protections extend only to those who would uphold it in turn. To withdraw those protections from those who would destroy it does not violate its moral principles; it is fundamental to them, because without this enforcement, the treaty would collapse. It is appropriate, even ethical, to answer force with proportional force, when that force is required to restore a just peace. We seek peace because on the whole it is far better than war; but as history has taught us, not every peace is better than the war it prevents.

So should one punch a Nazi in the face? The answer depends on the damage it will do to the social compact versus the good. While violence often begets more violence, I’m pretty sure, for instance, that the attempts, successful or not, to murder ob/gyns who perform abortions will continue unabated regardless of whether or not Richard Spencer was punched in the face. That said, to the extent it incites neo-Nazis to violence, as opposed to vile words, it’s a poor choice. I don’t think we’re at the point where this sort of thing does more good than harm, but, then again, I’ve been wrong before.

Or we could just be like Vidal Sassoon.

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1 Response to Tolerance Is A Peace Treaty And A Social Compact, Nothing More

  1. We must either believe that advocates of genocide are as guilty as those who commit it, or we must apologize for hanging Julius Streicher. I ain’t apologizing.

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