“How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical and moral doctrines?” This question was raised by John Rawls at the beginning of his influential book Political Liberalism and, in my opinion, is fundamentally the same question that runs through the veins of Liberalism since Locke’s days. To put it in simple terms, the Liberal tradition has coped with the same underlying question: How can we live peacefully in societies where we all hold dramatically different beliefs? The Reformation imposed this dilemma on Locke and his contemporaries and globalization, mass migratory movements and mass media expanded it today to Rawls and his followers. The point that I want to sketch briefly in this essay is that the concept of Tolerance has remained, since Locke’s first attempt at solving the dilemma, the backbone of political Liberalism and that for various reasons that I will present below, this concept does a good job at concealing the problem but not really at solving it. I will argue that in a postmodern world like ours, we can and should do better.
Let me start by sketching Liberalism’s --as presented by Rawls-- solution to the dilemma. The solution is a typically modern one (as opposed to postmodern, more on this later): granting that our personal beliefs, our private ways to see the world, are the truth for each one of us and that we don’t want to abandon them (our religious practices for example) what we need to do to avoid conflict is ring-fence the political arena to prevent any doctrinal contamination and roll back our beliefs as “private matters”. How can this be achieved? Here is where Tolerance comes to the rescue: when it comes to different beliefs and world-views, you tolerate them as long as they don’t mess with the political (and now purely procedural) arena.
Political Liberalism is then a regulatory framework that, armed with procedural justice principles, protects everyone’s private life. As long as you accept and respect the procedural political rules, you earn your right to be tolerated by the rest of the society. In a politically liberal world you won’t have to worry about incompatible doctrines or clashing world-views because the system of “justice as fairness” will fearlessly make sure that they stay contained in the private realm. If you cross that line and try to impose your beliefs on others you will lose your right to be tolerated and the institutions will take care of you.
Now, in my opinion, the fascinating point about Liberalism’s solution to the multicultural societies’ dilemma is that it manages to answer the question on how to create a stable society that at the same time is completely divided without addressing the divide itself. Political Liberalism is a theory that seeks equilibrium between a modern mind (one that holds on to its own universal truths, as opposed to a postmodern one) and a globalized society characterized by diversity and multicultural exposure. The only way to achieve such an odd combination is by ripping men in two: a private individual and a citizen. Roughly, this is how it works: If you want to keep your beloved doctrines, your beloved religion, your beloved morality, you can do it BUT you have to accept the terms of the social contract (that of course are fair) and by doing so you have to keep your doctrines to yourself and tolerate the fact that other social actors will have different ones.
Tolerance is therefore a “negative” concept; it’s a non-aggression pact between world-views that enables political cooperation and social interaction. Tolerance was the answer that modern philosophers provided to the riddle of how to maintain peace in a society characterized by a plurality of world-views. If one wants to live in a society with people that have different beliefs and wants to do it in a peaceful, organized and product maximizing way, one has to tolerate individual doctrines and ascribe to a socially shared procedural framework that clearly stipulates the rules of social interaction. In other words, one has to keep its doctrinal preferences to oneself and obey the institutional rules.
It’s important to highlight that, from a modern perspective, Liberalism’s recourse to Tolerance is in fact the right move to solve the quoted dilemma; for those who view their own beliefs as truthful representations of what things really are --for those who are not yet postmoderns-- political Liberalism and its reliance on Tolerance are the right answer. It’s either political Liberalism or “intolerant” political regimes; there is no other way to organize a society that still views private beliefs as the truth in an era of globalization.
It’s foolish to deny the central role that the concept of Tolerance played in the successful establishment of stable modern democracies. However, this concept also planted the seed for some of the most worrisome problems that have grown in the course of modernity thanks to the relegation of beliefs to the private arena and the subsequent impossibility to discuss the strengths and concerns of these now private beliefs. The inevitable consequence of this is the impoverishment of the discussion in all aspects that do not belong to the political sphere because we resigned de facto to the possibility of engaging in a dialogue with other world-views. And of course, by giving up on dialogue, political Liberalism left the door open to the quiet raise of fundamentalism.
The failure to integrate different cultures around a procedural political structure is evidenced in our days in the general displeasure of hordes of immigrants in France or in the south of the United States. Integration to society must go further than the simple recognition of political rights; the existential sphere of men is far ampler. Tolerance erects a conceptual wall that obliges everyone to remain within its own world-view and prevents it from being exposed to others.
In these times of tension between Western and Muslim traditions, policymakers and world leaders should pay more attention to postmodern philosophy. Tolerance is an outdated way of dealing with world-view’s differences, but in order to be surpassed the Western world must begin by acquiring consciousness of its own interpretative character, it needs to view itself as one more form of social organization among an infinity of ways to organize our social interaction and must understand the Islamic world as another interpretation that should be respected in a positive way, instead of viewing it through the distorting lenses of our own “truth”. The “War on Terror” is the most striking example of how outdated Tolerance is to deal with the political exigencies of a postmodern world. The violent response against “the enemies of freedom” is just the flip side of Tolerance. We are a tolerant society, but since they attacked us and they disrespected our institutions, we have the right to unload all our artillery on them without any regret. Tolerance, as any other product of a metaphysical perspective, flirts with violence. To tolerate is to tame my violent impulse against the things I don’t like under certain agreed conditions; but once these conditions are not fulfilled, I am justified to unleash my repressed violence. This is why American soldiers didn’t feel any ethical remorse by humiliating Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Since our violent feelings are only tamed by a political agreement of non-aggression, we get this sick rush of pleasure every time we are actually justified to unleash a violent response; we feel released. In a tolerant world we hate in silence for the sake of stability, but once we have a chance to rightly unleash our hate we waste no time.
This pervasive logic is dissolved when we look at the world from a postmodern perspective. The postmodern man, conscious of the interpretative nature of its beliefs can take a step back before unleashing unnecessary violence; he can question his own interpretation and can open it to dialogue and expose it to different world-views. Instead of unleashing his artillery, the postmodern man can dialogue with the aggressor to detect what is wrong on both sides and grow together. Usually, the aggression will be the result of some form of rigid assumptions on one or both sides that with the use of philosophy could and should be dissolved. In this sense, the fundamental role of philosophy today is to “postmodernize” culture, meaning, to show that our beliefs don’t represent what things really are, but are nothing more than pragmatic responses to our given existential conditions; by doing so, philosophy can help dissolve the sources of conflict that arise from absolute positions. Postmodern philosophy has the conceptual ammunition to show the interpretative nature of our beliefs and to bring about the consciousness that our world-view is only one more among the infinite possibilities of organizing human experiences given our circumstances. Insisting on Tolerance as the political cornerstone in a globalized society as ours is a dangerous equilibrium that will eventually break, if it hasn’t already. We need to go beyond Tolerance and reestablish a real and ever-going dialogue between different beliefs and world-views. But this can only be done by bringing about postmodernity and the interpretative consciousness that it entails: we need to let go the view that our world-view represents what things really are and learn to view it as particular response that has been shaped by our particular circumstances. Once this is achieved, Tolerance is no longer required, intercultural dialogue can be reestablished (or actually established for the first time in human history). In the beautiful words of Richard Rorty, the goal of philosophy in our days is to ensure that the conversation keeps going forever.
 Rawls 1993:4; Columbia University Press