Though freedom is not a state of nature but an artefact of civilisation, it did not arise from design. The institutions of freedom, like everything freedom has created, were not established because people foresaw the benefits they would bring. But, once its advantages were recognized, men began to perfect and extend the reign of freedom and, for that purpose, to inquire how a free society worked. Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty.
Tolerance is one of the most important virtues within the liberal tradition. Being in a tolerant society is not always comfortable. In 1605 a band of angry Catholics tried to blow up the houses of parliament. Although this action was in no way justified, it was the product of a long and bitter conflict over religion in Britain.
Until at least the middle of the eighteenth century, British society was tearing itself apart. The role of the monarch, the power of the state and the changing nature of Britain’s economy and society were all issues that could potentially boil over into civil war (again).
Liberalism has roots far beyond the enlightenment. Yet, it was not until the late eighteenth century that the values of liberalism became influential. Furthermore, liberalism emerged not by design (in what Hayek refers to as the French rationalist tradition) but because it was practical.
This was not lost on the people of the eighteenth century. Without liberalism, the bear pit of British society could turn once again to bloodshed. It was not a coincidence that after liberalism rose to prominence Catholicism ceased to be a matter of life and death in British society.
Liberal values are perhaps the best tool at a nation’s disposal to balance competing ideologies, ethnicities and religions. Marx was proven utterly wrong when he proclaimed that it was in the liberal bourgeois countries where class war would begin. On the contrary, it was the countries were the liberal tradition was strongest that avoided such conflict.
Without liberalism and tolerance, we are left with an all or nothing struggle for supremacy. Our society is vastly more diverse, complex and fluctuating then it was the eighteenth century. However, under this pressure, many supposed stalwarts of liberty proclaim that the essential liberal value of tolerance should be dispensed with.
I have heard many express the view that tolerance must be abandoned to defend our way of life. They say that by abandoning our most important principles we somehow preserve them.
This is obviously ridiculous. Liberalism is not a doctrine of dominance, it cannot be enforced through the barrel of a gun. To turn it into such a doctrine would be to make the mistake that the rationalists made.
Liberalism does not promise heaven on earth, it is not utopian. It merely acknowledges the truth of human existence. Life is not always comfortable. To demand that all in our world adhere to the same values as we do is to abandon liberalism.
We should reflect on the lessons of 1605 as the sky fills with glowing lights and the smell of gunpowder. By claiming that those that do not share our views are ‘enemies’ and ‘others’ then we shut down channels for meaningful conversation.
Tolerance is important even if it makes us uncomfortable. If we stick to our principles, we stand a better chance of convincing those that do not already share our views that we are right.