Tactics and Tools

Don’t Be Taken in by the Tolerance Trick

Author Greg Koukl Published on 06/01/2023

In today’s relativistic, postmodern world, one word can stop an ambassador for Christ in his tracks: “tolerance.” No judgments allowed. No “forcing” personal opinions. All views are equally valid.

Once, in a discussion with a class of Christian high school seniors, I wrote two sentences on the board. The first—“All views are equally valid”—expressed the current understanding of tolerance. All heads nodded. Nothing controversial here.

Then I wrote the second sentence: “Jesus is the Messiah, and Jews are wrong for rejecting him.” Immediately, hands flew up. “You can’t say that,” an annoyed student challenged. “That’s intolerant,” she said, noting that the second statement violated the first. What she didn’t see was that the first statement also violated itself.

I pointed to the first statement and asked, “Is this a view, the idea that all views have equal merit?” The students all agreed. Then I pointed to the second statement—the “intolerant” one—and asked the same question: “Is this a view?” Slowly, my point began to dawn on them. They’d been taken in by the tolerance trick.

If all views are equally valid, then the view that Christians are right about Jesus and Jews are wrong is just as valid as the idea that Jews are right and Christians are wrong. But this is hopelessly contradictory. They can’t both be true.

“Would you like to know how to escape this trap?” They nodded. Reject the postmodern distortion of tolerance, I told them, and return to the classical view characterized by two principles I learned from Peter Kreeft of Boston College:

Be egalitarian regarding persons.
Be elitist regarding ideas.

“Treat people as equally valuable, but treat ideas as if some are better than others,” I said, “because they are. To argue that some views are false, immoral, or just plain silly doesn’t violate any meaningful standard of tolerance. Some ideas are true; some are false. Some are brilliant; others are dangerous.”

Real tolerance, I explained, is about how we treat people, not ideas. Classic tolerance requires that every person be free to express his ideas without fear of abuse or reprisal, not that all views have equal validity, merit, or truth. By contrast, the postmodern definition of tolerance turns the classical formula on its head:

Be egalitarian regarding ideas.
Be elitist regarding persons.

If you reject another’s ideas, you’re automatically accused (as the student did with me) of disrespecting the person. On this view, no idea can be opposed, even graciously, without inviting the charge of incivility. The offender can then be maligned, publicly marginalized, and verbally abused as bigoted, disrespectful, ignorant and—can you believe it—intolerant.

Tolerance has gone topsy-turvy: Tolerate most beliefs, but don’t tolerate (show respect for) those who take exception with certain beliefs—usually politically correct ones. Contrary opinions are labeled as “imposing your view on others” or even “hate” and are quickly silenced. “Tolerance” has become intolerance.

Whenever you’re charged with intolerance, always ask for a definition. If tolerance means neutrality, then no one is ever tolerant because no one is ever neutral about his own opinions. This kind of tolerance is a myth.

Most of what passes for tolerance today is nothing more than intellectual cowardice. Those who brandish the charge “intolerant” are unwilling to be challenged by contrary opinions.

Jesus had no need for this kind of manipulation and no interest in it. He took the confrontations as they came and engaged them with intelligence, confidence, and grace. He answered his critics with truth, not with empty charges of intolerance. And he was willing to pay the price for his convictions in what was then a truly intolerant world.

Jesus understands real intolerance better than any of us, not as its perpetrator, but as its prey. In the end, though, he was victor, not victim, defeating all intolerance by an act of sacrificial love.