Against Tolerance

Stephen J. Gallagher

A few years ago, the word tolerance was out of fashion. It reeked of musty antiquity, reminiscent of the days before 1968. Yet today, tolerance enjoys new life in rhetoric regarding American attitudes toward Islam and Euro pean attitudes toward recent immigrants.

What prompted this renaissance? After September 11, “tolerance” was supposed to pour healing oil on American waters and prepare ground for a universal moral commitment. And with the emergence of the European Union and the “European Dream,” a resurgent culture of tolerance would enable the kindly encapsulation of all those formerly subsumed under the heading of “The Other.”

Yet the almost frantic hope being placed in the promise of tolerance is unproductive, even dangerous. Recent events have battered the foundations of tolerance, and we shall see that tolerance has run its course.

We will look at tolerance as reinvented by its most devoted champion, Jürgen Habermas. We shall analyze some of Habermas’s presuppositions and see why tolerance poses a clear and present danger. We will then examine Jacques Derrida’s interesting and challenging analysis of “hospitality,” which we will discover has its own set of problems.

Habermas on Tolerance

With the death of Derrida in 2004, Habermas is arguably Europe’s foremost thinker and philosopher. He is also the strongest and most persuasive proponent of tolerance in the classic sense. In his public discourse on political and cultural issues, Habermas has proven to be a voice for conventional, respectable positions.

As a proponent of cosmopolitanism, Habermas defends the principle of tolerance on the grounds of its universality. Habermas is not blind to the fact that all religions are grounded in dogmatism by definition. However, Habermas believes that in today’s tightly coupled world, religions have to see the world from many points of view. Religion in the modern world must be cosmopolitan, open to plurality, and unwilling to claim political power. In the world as Habermas dreams it, religions are effectively secular liberal entities:

The struggle for religious tolerance was not only the driving force behind the emergence of the liberal state but continues to stimulate its further development up to the present day. This is conceptually explained in terms of the kinds of reasons involved in performing tolerance. Normative reasons for the mutual respect of members of a shared political culture must trump epistemic reasons for rejecting the beliefs of others so the tolerant person accepts a double burden: to pursue the ethos inscribed in her own world view only under conditions of equal rights for all, and to respect within the same limits the ethos of others.

Habermas is here deploying a tolerance that he explicitly embeds in a political context. Within this political context, he imagines an ideal democratic community in which all citizens grant each other equal rights on a free and reciprocal basis. In such a context, it would be impossible for any authority, political or religious, to unilaterally determine the “limits of tolerance.” This idealistic context would enable all members of the society to tolerate the practices and beliefs of others without having to acknowledge that they contain any intrinsic value, let alone any truth.

A universal cosmopolitan “constitution” would possess enough structural flexibility to encapsulate even practices that might threaten that constitution’s own boundaries. This constitution is understood as the political manifestation of an ideal: the ideal of a moral community where the community’s practices and norms are freely decided and accepted by all members. The idea that any members of this community would even consider themselves as hostile toward the community, as Other, is impossible by definition. In my view, this makes Habermas’s notion of a freely constructed constitution as the basis for tolerance romantic, essentially unrealistic. For this reason alone, the Habermasian notion of tolerance would be of little value. But the concept of tolerance as such is problematic, even dangerous.

Tolerance as Problematic

Tolerance was a necessary and welcome step away from the sort of mutual religious and ethnic slaughter that Europe pursued with such gusto for so many centuries. However, we need to be objective and dissect those aspects of tolerance that are dubious at best, dangerous at worst.

Tolerance presumes a patronizing attitude on the part of the person who is tolerating the Other. The “tolerator” no doubt feels that his motives are pure, and his attitude to the Other is one of open equality. But as Meera Nanda points out in Epistemic Charity of Social Constructivist Critics, “what from the perspective of Western liberal givers looks like a tolerant, nonjudgmental, therapeutic ‘permission to be different’ appears to some of us ‘others’ as a condescending act of charity.” From the perspective of the Other, being “tolerated” is not going to engender any warm feelings of inclusion or understanding. At its root, tolerance manufactures an interaction in which the tolerator is doing the Other a favor.

Tolerance is, by definition, one-sided. The tolerator graciously decides to tolerate the Other. The Other has no say in the matter, nor does the Other have the power to return the favor. Tolerance is thus a more or less naked deployment of power. Tolerance is always a supplementary mark of sovereignty.

Perhaps most dangerously, tolerance is revocable at will. The tolerator, possessing all power in the exchange, can choose at any time to stop tolerating the Other. The Other, the weaker party in the exchange, has no recourse. Make no mistake: the pogrom, the lynch mob, even genocide continue to wait in the shadows of tolerance. History is riddled with murderous examples of the consequences of the revocation of tolerance, from the whims of a French king to the various ethnic-cleansing rampages in the balkanized remnants of the former Yugoslavia. The tolerant neighbor who smiles and nods at you one day could be coming at you and your children with a machete the next. The petty bureaucrat who sells you your stamps at the post office today may be dressed in paramilitary fatigues and loading you and all the other men of your village into trucks for “orderly disposal” tomorrow. Nothing in the nature of tolerance can stop it once tolerance itself has been revoked.

This danger is exacerbated by the fact that tolerance is, at its heart, a distinctively Christian posture. The concept of a majority that is willing, at its own discretion, to tolerate the deviant beliefs, attitudes, and practices of a minority retains a strong element of the Christian “act of mercy.” Tolerance creates precisely the sort of morass that Kant fell into: the attempt to present a virtue as religiously neutral while it actually retains a strong Christian component. The religious nature and heritage of tolerance make it a paternalistic gesture in which the Other is not accepted as an equal partner but rather subordinated, perhaps assimilated, often persecuted; inevitably and always misunderstood. Tolerance as a secular virtue is nothing more than a palatable wrapper for the mandate that the good Christian must sometimes tolerate the non-Christian. And sometimes not.

Why Hospitality?

With “tolerance” discredited, we are compelled to take a closer look at Derrida’s project to forge a strong alternative to tolerance. Derrida challenges us with the concept of “hospitality.”

Derrida neutralizes the secret utilitarian motivation behind so much of human “hospitality.” He points out the dictate in Hebrews 13:2 that tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Here, hospitality is a naked scrounging after advantage (in this world or the next). Derrida is determined to ground his ethics and politics in a unique and unconditional obligation that each of us has to the other. But before he can do that, Derrida must dismantle the common notion of hospitality.

Kantian Hospitality

Derrida’s concept of the role of hospitality comes straight from his confrontation with Kant. Derrida challenges Kantian hospitality for its conditional nature. Kant’s “hospitality” presupposes the idea of a limit, beyond which no civilized community can be asked to extend the privilege of hospitality.

Kant viewed hospitality as “the right granted to the foreigner as such” and forcefully positioned it as “a natural law (droit). Being of natural or original derivation, this law would be, therefore, both impresciptible and inalienable.” Still, Derrida objects, inalienable though it may be, Kant’s natural law of hospitality is by no means unconditional.

Writing in an age where cross-border migration was the exception rather than the rule, Kant “excluded hospitality as a right of residence (Gastrecht); he limits it to the right of visitation (Besuchsrecht).” Additionally, “Kant assigns to hospitality conditions which make it dependent on state sovereignty; indeed, dependent on the concept of the State as such.”

Kantian hospitality breaks down when the situation reaches a state in which “one can become virtually xenophobic in order to protect or claim to protect one’s own hospitality, the own home that makes possible one’s own hospitality.” Once we strip away Kant’s Enlightenment alibis, we see that Kant’s hospitality fails because of “its finitude, which is to say the necessity, for the host, for the one who receives, of choosing, electing, filtering, selecting their invitees, visitors, or guests.” Kantian hospitality is inevitably, fatally contingent. Derrida hopes to leap clear over Kantian hospitality, to bootstrap up, out, and into a “new charter of hospitality.”

Radical Hospitality

Derrida hopes to deploy his reinvented hospitality as a method for revisiting and rediscovering a whole range of political and ethical situations. Thus, one can no longer view hospitality as a technique or a tool; “hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic amongst others.” Hospitality, so defined, deals with the border, the perimeter: the place where surprises happen, not all of them pleasant. Hospitality is the place where the initial, potentially dangerous contact takes place with the stranger, the foreigner, the deviant, the Other. It is no accident that the French words for foreigner and danger sound alike; both elements are central to Derrida’s concept of the hospitality event.

Derrida postulates that “I am responsible for the other as other.” It is necessary for me to welcome the Other unconditionally, despite the potential for danger. I must acknowledge the Other’s unconditional right to singularity, though this puts me under no additional burden to like the Other. It is simply necessary for me to open my doors, my home, my culture, my country, and my self. Derrida’s unconditional hospitality is frightening and transgressive. Derrida accepts this dangerous aspect as a necessary part of hospitality. In his typically perverse way, Derrida actively embraces the danger.

Allowing the radically Other, the unnamed Other, to enter one’s home is the dangerous and ethically problematic essence of hospitality. This hospitality violates any number of deep moral interdictions. “The crossing of the threshold always remains a transgressive step . . .” Yet we have no choice about following the dictate of hospitality; the decision is not ours to make, but we remain completely responsible for the decision and for its consequences. We stand in terrified (and potentially terrorized) responsibility for our hospitality.

We experience this categorical imperative as something beyond “ethics” in any contingent or even understandable sense. Hospitality demands that we behave in a “nonethical, nonresponsible manner, and one must do that in the name of duty, of an infinite duty, in the name of absolute duty.” (Emphasis in the original.) This unconditional hospitality is dangerous and potentially destructive.

The problem with Derrida’s unconditional hospitality is that it is not a “law” in any sense that society would understand. No existing or imaginable society could construct any sensible framework for radical hospitality. “This unconditional law of hospitality, if such a thing is thinkable, would then be a law without imperative, without order and without duty. A law without law, in short.” Derrida is enough of a realist to understand that his reinvention of hospitality runs aground on precisely this logical absurdity.

Hospitality and the Future of the West

Things have become very dangerous in this tired old world of ours, and tolerance has not fared well. Especially noteworthy has been the recent collapse of the notion of tolerance in various parts of the European Union. It is odd that we do not find ourselves surprised that tolerance has been tossed on the trash heap in the United States, yet we somehow continue to expect more from Europe. It is becoming clear that the problems of tolerance that I mentioned earlier—specifically, its revocable nature and its basis in a specifically Christian worldview—are now becoming a more explicit element of the discourse among ordinary Europeans, as well as segments of the European intellectual community.

One thinks of the case of Theo van Gogh, slaughtered on the street by a Muslim religious fanatic. Commentators in Holland spoke of “the end of multiculturalism” and, more ominously, about the idea that “tolerance has its limits.” Cultural conservatives and traditional leftists suddenly found themselves sharing a common voice. Intellectuals who continued to preach the gospel of tolerance and multiculturalism were condemned as cowards. In France, one now speaks of a “threshold of tolerance” beyond which one no longer has a right to ask a nation’s native community to welcome the Other. In the United States, we see Katha Pollitt in The Nation write:

Militant Islam may be the beginning of the end for multiculturalism, the live-and-let-live philosophy that asks, Why can’t we all enjoy our differences? Ethnic food and world music are all very well, but fatwas and amputations and suicide bombings just don’t put a smile on the day.

We should not view the death of tolerance in the West as merely a symptom of hermetic nationalism. Despite so much fine talk about the right of asylum and “hospitality” in the everyday sense, the West seems more and more to be covering its hindquarters with an array of what Derrida called “pure rhetorical alibis.” The question facing the West in the years to come will be how to deal with the foreigner now that tolerance has collapsed.

With the traditional notion of tolerance in full collapse, does Derrida’s unconditional hospitality have anything to offer in the real-world political and social contexts?

I have to admit that I don’t hold out much realistic hope for Derrida’s radical hospitality as a viable replacement for the politically based tolerance that is now collapsing everywhere. Unconditional hospitality in Derrida’s radical sense would require more courage than people might be able to muster. But we must come to terms with the questions raised by the idea of hospitality because, as Derrida rightly insists, “hospitality is going to be the space of all the battles to come.”


Derrida, Jacques. The Gift Of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

———. Of Hospitality. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

———. Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. New York: Routledge Press, 2001.

Habermas, Jürgen. On Tolerance, Democracy and Cultural Rights. The Royal Institute of Philosophy. Annual Lecture. March 28, 2003.

Stephen J. Gallagher

Stephen J. Gallagher is an essayist who lives and works in North Carolina. His work has appeared in Free Inquiry, The Humanist, American Atheist, and the Journal of Philosophy. An accomplished playwright, his plays have been performed in Boston, Raleigh, and New York City.

A few years ago, the word tolerance was out of fashion. It reeked of musty antiquity, reminiscent of the days before 1968. Yet today, tolerance enjoys new life in rhetoric regarding American attitudes toward Islam and Euro pean attitudes toward recent immigrants. What prompted this renaissance? After September 11, “tolerance” was supposed to pour healing …

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