Jackson Doughart
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Canada's scary intolerance obsession

The National Post, 30 October 2013

The most-influential buzz word in Canadian cultural lingo is undoubtedly “tolerance”. Not only does this concept animate nearly every social initiative, it has also become a prized personal attribute. And the label of intolerant is among the most effective of ad hominem attacks. It is for this reason that well-meaning people who hold unpopular views spend so much time opposing or pre-empting the charge. In the forum of public discussion, we all to readily accuse people of bigotry and then dare them to prove themselves innocent.

A quintessential example of this treatment involves Margaret Somerville, the McGill ethical philosopher who was borked from a Ryerson honourary degree in 2006 on the ground of intolerance. Whatever one thinks of the moral positions she advocates, including opposition to physician-assisted suicide, circumcision, and abortion, any reasonable person should recognize Ms. Somerville as a thoughtful and genuine person who has made considerable contributions to public deliberation on ethics in Canada — in other words, someone more than qualified for an honourary degree.

As she recounts in Nathan Wiseman’s new anthology The Public Intellectual in Canada, the charade surrounding her nomination was a ridiculous instance of political-correctness fundamentalism. For having opposed the legalization of homosexual marriage, which had become Canadian law only a year previously, Somerville was labelled a bigot — not for the character of her arguments, but for espousing a disagreeable view.

It is worth noting that in Somerville’s public statements on the subject, she seriously acknowledged the need to address actual instances of prejudice and favoured the legalization of civil unions, which would have extended all legal privileges without changing the definition of marriage. These caveats, however, were unmoving to political opponents, who preferred to defame her than to engage with her positions in a public-spirited fashion.

The scary thing is the extent to which these faux-arguments have gained purchase in Canadian political life, and the extraordinary vacuity of our obsession with intolerance. The tolerance doctrine reigns without any clear meaning, and without any relationship to real cases of hate, which makes it analogous to successful ad hominems of the past.

By the mid-1940s, the label of fascism had become so empty in meaning for George Orwell to recommended that it be degraded “to the level of a swearword”. And contrived comparisons between almost any position and the practices of the Third Reich motivated Mike Godwin to coin Godwin’s Law — the reductio ad hitlerum — which declares a debater who compares his opponent with Hitler to have lost. The intended effect is to deter people from baselessly slandering someone who simply disagrees with them, which poisons the spirit of argument and dilutes appreciation of the phenomenon being misinvoked.

Perhaps we need a construction of our own to fight back against the commonplace manifestation of the intolerance obsession. The industry of manufactured offense, after all, has produced a replete share of inanities, including the recent campaign to remove the imagery of Hallowe’en in schools because of its purported intolerance. This is a silly non-issue, but one which shows how the tolerance doctrine has become the universal solvent into which all public arguments are dipped. And as the case of Professor Somerville shows, the use of the bigotry label as a means of censoring disagreement is far from unimportant or ineffectual.

Enter what we might call Doughart’s Law, or the “reductio ad bigotrum”, which declares any person who accuses her political opponent of bigotry or intolerance as the loser of a debate. Once a person has been caught, the argument is over. Just imagine how much more congenial and effective public discourse would be if empty accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and so on, were off limits.

What, you may ask, should we therefore make of genuine instances of prejudice? I’d say that true cases are rare at present, usually concocted by the weak of wit as a replacement for real arguments. But even our understanding of “real intolerance” is misguided, being antithetical to the traditional meaning. As I understand it, tolerance connotes an attitude of good will toward those who hold opposing views; it does not mean that opposing views themselves are illegitimate. For example, on account of empirical observation, I believe that the precepts of Islam are demonstrably harmful to the project of engendering human happiness and freedom, and that the quality of life enjoyed by Western societies would be undone if such precepts were ever to be adopted. But I am tolerant because I am willing to share my society with those who take an opposing view, and I don’t seek to censor or profane them.

It would thus appear that it was not Professor Somerville who was intolerant, but rather those who sought to discredit her name and accomplishment through such a charge. They would be prime offenders of Doughart’s Law, a fallacy whose repudiation would be a welcome and ameliorative change to arguments in the public square.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com