“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.'” With these words to the National Security Council, the re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron laid out his intention to establish new powers to make it harder for people to promote so-called extremist views. His reappointed Home Secretary Theresa May had already introduced new legislation earlier in the year that mandated those in specified authorities – including schools, colleges, and universities – to take measures “to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” (a notably passive formulation).
They appear to be in good company. A supportive article in the establishment paper The Telegraph ran under the title “Britain is too tolerant of the intolerant.” And it is not just conservatives who hold such a position. Many liberals, as well as those on the old left of the political spectrum, seek to have those whose opinions they oppose banned from speaking in public. Some Muslim community leaders now see their role as “protecting our younger generation from the toxic effects of extremist propaganda,” too. Even a few academics have been arguing as much for years.
But aside from the small matter of who defines what is “extremist” – a task legal professionals will most likely relish – these individuals betray their failure to understand what tolerance really is, revealing a low view of freedom and other people, and a complete absence of any purposive vision of their own for society.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – the apocryphal phrase attributed to the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire is as good a place to start as any in elucidating these points. Tolerance, in this sense, can never be passive as Cameron suggested. It starts from disapproval, which is an active judgment. Only the non-judgmental – an attitude unfortunately encouraged by contemporary multiculturalism – are passive. And accordingly, they are not tolerant either – just indifferent, turning a blind eye to the beliefs and actions of others.
True tolerance, as Voltaire’s predecessor the English philosopher John Locke understood full well, requires ruthlessly engaging those whose opinions you disagree with, while agreeing not to censor them or resort to violence. It is an acceptance that the world is uncertain and a willingness to be open to the possibility of your own error or partiality. It needs absolute freedom of expression, both to prevent viewpoints being banned or hidden from view, and to allow all parties to better develop their own position or understanding.
This lies at the heart of what a university is. Indeed, it is why many choose to go there – to have the opportunity to put their ideas to the test (no matter how outlandish they may be), and, in turn, to test others. To deny this to the young – for fear that supposedly bad ideas may have “toxic effects” – is to view and treat them as infants. Sadly, this is a position already adopted by successive heads of the British Security Service (MI5), who have described their concerns of young adults being “vulnerable” or “groomed” into becoming terrorists.
As at least one commentator has noticed, this approach turns the war on terror into a child protection issue that draws on contemporary social fears regarding pedophiles. It presents young people as mindless sheep in need of protection. Yet, the recent actions of several youth who made their way to join the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) in Syria suggests the opposite is true. These are bright, energetic, and willful individuals in search of something to believe in, which is also necessarily an indictment of what they are provided with at home – in the West.
At home, they see politicians who have given up on the need to engage and inspire, and who would rather be seen to censor and regulate (despite the fact that many of them marched in support of free speech in solidarity with the cartoonists murdered in France earlier this year).
Similarly, universities that know the new legislation to be unnecessary and unworkable – let alone opposed to the spirit of a liberal education – will, nevertheless, introduce new procedures and audits to be seen to be in compliance with government diktat. Little wonder that those in search of a real purpose and meaning to their lives are left to look for this elsewhere.
By seeking to ban the opinions they disapprove of, our leaders implicitly reveal their weaknesses – both in failing to engage with and argue against those they so stridently reject, and, even more so, in having nothing more positive to put forward as a vision of their own. In doing so, they do not make society more tolerant, but more authoritarian – and blindly so, to boot, for what is it that they want people to be de-radicalized to?