Saturday, January 06, 2007

Chaplin on Liberalism and Toleration: Part One

Comment have been running a series on “living with liberalism”. A recent piece is by Jonathan Chaplin’s who discusses liberalism and the issue of tolerance. Halfway through his discussion he makes an interesting suggestion:

A hypothesis worth pursuing (further than I can here) is that the new liberal regime is expanding its remit at the same time as—and perhaps because of—its decreasing capacity to deliver the wide-ranging social services it used to think of as essential to its mandate. If there is truth is this, the irony is rich: as liberal states, under pressures from increasingly globalized economic exchanges, are less and less able or willing to resist the progressive marketization of civil society, and the consequent dismantling of their welfare systems, they simultaneously pursue the progressive politicization of civil society. As the power to restrain business corporations slips through their fingers—indeed, as they all too willingly cede it—they grab hold ever more jealously of the reins of voluntary associations, which are easier targets. A diagnosis of this new apparent twist in the pathology of late modern liberal states awaits.

Part of this politicization of civil society is the “monopolistic enforcement of an individualistic regime of tolerance”. What this means is that "arithmetical equality, understood as identical treatment for individuals across a wide range of institutional practices within all societies" is given priority with no, or little, concern for the internal beliefs and purposes of diverse associations. That means that associations are not given freedom to set their own limits to tolerance within their sphere of action and competence. This is a problem because there has to be differently set limits to tolerance within different societal spheres. Parents, teachers and leaders of political parties have to set different limits to toleration for their children, students and cabinet members, limits that may be inappropriate in different contexts.

To illustrate the inappropriate enforcement of an individualistic regime of tolerance Chaplin focuses on situations where student groups on university campuses affiliated to the student associations have been disaffiliated on the basis of discrimination due to their position on homosexual relations.

Yesterday a similar issue hit the news here in the UK. In my home town of Exeter the Christian Union (which has now been “democratically” forced to change its name to the Evangelical Christian Union) has been suspended from the student guild and had a bank account frozen (see here and here). Not on the basis of a position taken on homosexual relations, but because members are asked to sign a statement of belief in Jesus as their God and saviour and officials to sign a more comprehensive statement of belief.

The declaration which members have to sign includes the phrase: "In joining this union, I declare my faith in Jesus Christ as my Saviour, my Lord and my God". The Guild of Students President Jemma Percy said the requirement to sign the declaration meant "participation in the society was not open to every student".

This is clearly a case where the individualistic regime of tolerance has over stretched itself to the point of self-contradiction, undermining freedom of association.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to comment on the original article by Jonathan Chaplin.

The basic point I wish to make is that the clarity of his discussion could be improved by distinguishing between tolerance and sphere-sovereign jurisdiction. Apart from the qualifications below I endorse his article whole-heartedly.

Jonathan uses a definition of tolerance as a "policy of patient forbearance towards that which is not approved." However, he goes on to discuss what is legitimately within the responsibility of different social spheres to determine for themselves. I think these need to be separated thus:

Wider society (or social spheres internally) "tolerate" that which is "not approved" by not acting against those who write/say/do things which are not approved, which lie within the jurisdiction of the relevant social sphere. Otherwise known as "turning a blind eye" - it is not approved but no action is taken against it for whatever reason. There is a legitimate power available which is not exercised.

However, there are some issues which lie outside the jurisdiction of the relevant social sphere, and it is inappropriate to use the term "tolerance" to describe attitudes towards them. "Tolerance" implies that something is not approved, we have the power to stop it happening, but for whatever reason we turn a blind eye and do nothing. If something lies outside the competence of a sphere to rule on or act against, the attitude towards it should not be called "tolerance" as this sphere does not need to, and cannot legitimately, officially state approval or dis-approval (although individuals may have their views and may express and act on these legitimately within other spheres), cannot legitimately rule on or act against it, and is not accountable if it does not do something about it.

In the issue of religious groups on campus, the Student Association does not "tolerate" different creedal confessions which it disagrees with, as it has no competence to rule on them and is therefore prohibited from legitimately acting against groups which hold views which the Association members (as individuals) hold to be objectionable. They are entitled to have those views as to the objectionable nature of religious creeds, but cannot as an Association formally act against those who hold them. "Toleration" implies a right to act against such views but turning a blind eye instead.

There are other issues with "toleration" e.g. whether failing to act against something which is legitimately within the power of a social sphere to control raises concerns about liability and accountability for failing to act when action is required. When does "toleration" move from ignoring a minor departure from norms of no real consequence, to inaction against flagrant corruption? And does the first eventually move to the second through perpetrators "getting away with it"?

Perhaps "toleration" is a concept whose day is past, and we should find new ways to talk about our attitudes to that which we do not approve.

Chris Gousmett