The willingness to take loud and public offence manifests that peculiar modern imperative to be aggrieved and disport oneself in the mantle of no-risk victimhood. More than that, it affirms that one cares deeply about something in the absence of any other transcendent purpose in life
One always hesitates to say the obvious, but as George Orwell remarked, it is the obvious that intellectuals are most inclined to ignore. There is a good reason for this: there is hardly any point in being an intellectual if you see only what is obvious. An intellectual, almost by definition, is a person who sees, or claims to see, what others do not see, an alternative to which is to be blind to what others do see. It is true that appearances are sometimes deceptive, but more often than not they are very instructive.
Now it seems obvious to me that the notion of tolerance (the queen of the modern virtues, indeed the sole distinctly modern virtue) implies the existence of dislike or disapproval, for surely everyone is able to tolerate what he likes, approves of or is utterly indifferent to. A person who is too inclined to disapprove is censorious, not intolerant; and many a censorious person is in practice tolerant, if only because he has no choice in the matter. How many parents, for example, tolerate their son- or daughter-in-law, and disguise their distaste for him or her, sometimes for decades at a time? Tolerance is (or ought to be) a discipline and perhaps a habit of the heart, but not an ideology.
A tolerant person is one who disapproves of someone or something but does not act as if his disapproval were all that counted in the determination of his conduct towards whomever or whatever he disapproves of. To live and let live is not to approve—much less, in modern parlance to “celebrate”—all ways of life as if there were nothing to choose between them, or to be glad that some people have adopted a morally reprehensible or disgusting way of conducting themselves. Tolerance, moreover, should not be infinite: for to find nothing intolerable is to accept everything, including the worst evils, and is the ultimate form of pusillanimity. It is the refusal ever to confront anything; toleration can be a vice as well as a virtue. Where to place the boundary between the tolerable and the intolerable is, of course, a matter of judgment, and judgment is always fallible, for there is no hard-and-fast rule to help us decide every case, many cases being marginal. What is tolerable in one circumstance is often intolerable in another.
Every scribbler must be secretly relieved that there is no shortage, and never will be a shortage, of the intolerable in this world: for while I do not claim that the intolerable is the only subject worth writing about, literature would be much impoverished without it. What would Richard III be like, for example, if it reflected the real Richard III as the Richard III Society says he was. Somehow the following lines are not as compelling as the original:
I, that am curtailed of fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on promoting social justice.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a righteous king
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Economic plans have I laid, social reforms,
By good administration, redistributive taxation,
To reconcile the social classes with one another,
While promoting trade and economic growth.
Such a Richard III would no doubt have been a much better man that Shakespeare’s moral monster, but I doubt that a play about him would long have stayed in the repertoire.
My attitude to the intolerable, then, is akin to my attitude to suffering: each individual instance of it is to be eliminated as far as possible, while being under no illusion that, in the abstract, suffering and the intolerable are not an inevitable concomitant of Man’s earthly existence. Indeed, the attempt to reduce them is what gives many people their sense of purpose in life: a utopia in which “the idle pleasures of these days” are all there were to life would bore them, and they would soon start to make trouble. Man is a problem-creating animal.
These fair well-spoken days never last long, if they ever exist at all. Each age has its own conflicts and its own moral confusions, and one of ours is that conflation of tolerance with respect. Alas, the word respect has come increasingly to take on the meaning that it has in the American ghettoes, namely a demand that you kowtow to me either physically or morally, in the latter case by saying nothing derogatory about me, or by flattering me and accepting my point of view entirely as “valid”. Validity has changed meaning or connotation also: it is no longer the logically correct drawing of conclusions from premises, but a demanded affirmation of an interlocutor’s ego by non-contradiction of what he says. The corollary of this is the supposed right not to be offended.
The supposed right of people to have their attitudes, beliefs, opinions “respected”, that is to say not questioned, reprehended, derided or mocked, merely because of their strength of conviction, will no doubt put most people in mind of Muslims who claim it and want to impose it on the whole world. In the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair, which in my view was a turning point in world history, a book was published in England with the title Be Careful with Muhammad! It implied that those who were disrespectful towards the Prophet had only themselves to blame if their disrespect was met with violence. This, of course, is the logic of the protection racket and the gangster: we will leave you in (relative) peace, but on our conditions.
However, such a manner of thinking and behaving is becoming more widespread: the real Islamification of our society. There are numbers of subjects on which many of us are reluctant to express our thoughts because of the reaction they are likely to evoke, even to the point of violence. Good-humoured disagreement, at least on these subjects (which, of course, change with fashion), becomes impossible. An asymmetric war is waged between monomaniac enragés on the one hand, and people for whom the subject in question is only one among many on the other. The latter are not prepared to make much personal sacrifice to establish what they see as the truth on the subject, and so the monomaniacs, who are usually a small minority of the population, win by default.
I first realised this when I wrote an article concerning a certain pattern of behaviour that I thought social and psychological in origin, but which those who exhibited it insisted on believing was physical. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was persecuted afterwards; the enragés even tried to get me sacked from my position. In those days, twenty years ago, the chief executive of the hospital merely replied to the enragés that it was a free country and I could write what I liked. I am far from sure he (or rather his successor) would write in the same way today.
The question, of course, is not whether I was right or wrong on the matter in hand; and others who wrote in the same vein were similarly, or worse, persecuted. Because none of them cared strongly enough about the question to face continued or mounting abuse, and so public debate about the subject was effectively stifled. Many writers will not now touch the subject, at least from a point of view different from that of the calumniators. The regrettable truth is that monomaniacal calumny can achieve its ends.
Since my experience all those years ago, the situation has only worsened. A willingness to take offence has become a desire to take offence; and as we know, appetite grows with the feeding. No propitiation of the offended, therefore, is ever enough; on the contrary, it leads merely to the next demand and cause for offence if not met. Taking offence acts as a kind of guarantee that one cares deeply about something in the absence of any other transcendent purpose in life. The new Cartesian cogito is, therefore, I’m offended, therefore I’m right—and righteous.
Anthony Daniels’s latest book is Migration, Multiculturalism and its Metaphors: Selected Essays (Connor Court), published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.