Axioms, heuristics

I remember very clearly sitting in the basement of a Toronto house, eating Indian food and meeting members of the Indian community as part of a Christian missionary-style thing. Maybe “remember clearly” is an overstatement; I actually just remember very good pakora and someone talking about how tolerance and diversity are self-defeating.

All this in the basement of a house in a multicultural city (or at least a city with multicultural pretenses). It was one of those moments, in retrospect, I can’t help boggling at our privilege. Sitting there, a mission field in our laps, whining about the very thing that enabled it.

It’s stunning, really. (And I have more on that for later.)

But that aside, the talk about tolerance centered around how tolerance can’t tolerate intolerance, thus tolerance is self-defeating, thus… something?

It’s just… silly.

Tolerance isn’t an axiom. You can’t disprove it. It doesn’t fail its own test; it’s not a test. It’s a heuristic.

We all do this all the time. We have guidelines or instincts or heuristics that guide our lives. Here’s one of mine: if someone is stridently and unapologetically anti-vaccination (among other antis), I’m immediately suspicious of anything else they say.

But if we turn this into an axiom it’s plainly ridiculous. Antivaxxers can obviously be right about stuff. They don’t, for instance, tend to take long walks off short piers, my wishes to the contrary.

Tolerance is a heuristic, too. I obviously don’t believe that all perspectives are morally equivalent, but I do have to act as if they were (in public) in order to get along in a world where my truth claims are expressed by a vanishingly small percentage of the population.

But only to a point.

If your perspective on freedom of religion is that we should legislate one variety of religion, we’ve reached that point. I’m under no obligation to tolerate your 1600s Church of England crap.

If your perspective on the ethnic makeup of western nations is 100% European, I’m under no obligation to give your belief any sort of legitimacy.

That’s the point at which the heuristic no longer applies. When you start making your perspective the perspective. Because in order to function in the world, in order to have a government and public sphere that works for everyone (not just for your tribe).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *