Letters and Replies: Tolerance, Net Neutrality

Craig Biddle’s “The Ground Zero Mosque, the Spread of Islam, and How America Should Deal with Such Efforts” (TOS, Fall 2010) lays out the facts and principles concerning this issue in the clearest manner I’ve seen. However, I suggest that one of Mr. Biddle’s ancillary arguments is mistaken. He describes “tolerance” as a vice, specifically, the vice of “refraining from passing moral judgment.” But this is not how the concept was understood during the Enlightenment, when John Locke and others talked about the importance of religious toleration. Nor is it how modern dictionaries define the term. The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, defines toleration as “Official recognition of the rights of individuals and groups to hold dissenting opinions, especially on religion”; and Webster’s unabridged dictionary says essentially the same, adding that toleration is the opposite of bigotry. Wikipedia states that, “In general usage, tolerance is the ability to accept the existence of something while still disapproving of it. In social, cultural and religious contexts, tolerance and toleration are terms used to describe attitudes which are ‘tolerant’ (or moderately respectful) of practices or group memberships that may be disapproved of by those in the majority.”

The concept as understood from the Enlightenment, through the early 20th century (Webster’s), to the late 20th century (American Heritage), to the current day (Wikipedia), is clear. Tolerance is not “refraining from passing moral judgment,” but recognition of the right to freedom of conscience or religion.

John Gillis
New York, New York

Craig Biddle Replies:

It is true, as Mr. Gillis implies, that John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers used “tolerance” (or “toleration”) to mean respect for the right to freedom of conscience (although, even then, the meaning of the term was vague, which is why Locke was able to advocate “toleration” yet deny that Catholics or atheists have the right to freedom of conscience). It is also true that many dictionaries contain similar definitions of tolerance. But neither Enlightenment usage nor dictionaries are the standard of a proper definition. The standard is the requirements of human cognition.

The purpose of a definition is to distinguish the things included under a concept from all other things. The goal is to draw a bright line between the units to be included and those to be excluded, so that when we use a concept or word, whether in thought or communication, we know what we are thinking or talking about.

A close look at today’s dictionary definitions of “tolerance” shows that they do not draw a bright line; rather, they blur crucial distinctions. This is to some extent evident in the Wikipedia description Mr. Gillis provides. What would it mean to be “moderately respectful” of practices such as, say, teaching children that Jews are dogs and pigs or that reason is the devil’s whore or that man is a blight on nature? There are people and groups who teach such evil. Should we be “moderately respectful” of them or their practices? How would that differ from withholding moral judgment?

Of course we should not be moderately respectful of such vermin; rather, we should be intensely hateful of them. We should judge them as the children-abusing, soul-destroying, life-negating, utterly evil creatures they are. Yet the alleged virtue of tolerance tells us not to do so.

Observe that other dictionary definitions of tolerance include “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own” (Webster’s), and “the capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others” (American Heritage). What would it mean to have “sympathy or indulgence [!]” for the belief that Sharia law should reign or that women should be beaten to a pulp for not covering their bodies from head to toe in a burqa? And how would “respecting” such beliefs or practices be significantly different from refusing to judge them?

“Tolerance” has come to mean “the refusal to pass moral judgment.” As to how this happened, the mechanism was, as I explained in my article, the fallacy that Ayn Rand called “package-dealing,” which

consists in conceptually combining or packaging together ideas that are essentially different, and thus treating them as though they were essentially the same. It amounts to mentally mixing the logically unmixable. The concept of “tolerance”—when posited as a virtue—packages together “respecting individual rights” with “refusing to judge people” and thus treats them as the same thing.

This package dupes people into accepting the idea that tolerance is a virtue (because the word allegedly means respect for rights) and thus renders them unable to pass moral judgment (because it actually means refusal to judge).

The gleeful propagators of this package deal were the 20th- and 21st-century subjectivists, relativists, and multiculturalists, who seized an already equivocal term (“tolerate,” after all, means to “abide” or “put up with”) and used it to further their nefarious goals. What better way to eliminate moral judgment than to concoct a “virtue” that appeals to those who seek to respect rights but also precludes them from passing moral judgment?

So long as good people regard tolerance as a virtue, this package deal will wreak its intended destruction.

If we did not have a perfectly clear and fairly concise phrase to express the idea of respecting rights, then there might be an argument for unpacking the package deal that is “tolerance” and fighting to revive and clarify its meaning as “respect for rights.” (Even then, however, “tolerance” would remain highly problematic because of the meaning of “tolerate.”) But we do have a clear and concise phrase to express the idea of respecting rights: “respecting rights”—or, in regard specifically to respecting the right to freedom of conscience: “respecting the right to freedom of conscience.” Granted, these are not as economical as “tolerance” would be if it could serve the purpose. But they have the virtue of being accurate and unequivocal.

Like it or not, the meaning of a word (not a concept, but a word) can change. “Liberal” used to mean “advocate of liberty”; now it means “advocate of statism.” “Awful” used to mean “awe inspiring” or “admirable”; now it means “extremely bad” or “terrible.” “Nice” used to mean “unknowing” or “ignorant”; now it means “pleasant” or “courteous.”

Likewise, “tolerance” used to mean (vaguely) “respect for the right to freedom of religion”; now it means “the refusal to judge.” By acknowledging this, we do not lose the word; we just clarify its meaning. And clarity is always to the advantage of the good.

Craig Biddle

“Open Source” Software is Governed by Property Rights

To the Editor:

Raymond C. Niles’ “Net Neutrality: Toward a Stupid Internet” (TOS, Winter 2008–9) is a generally excellent analysis, which, unfortunately, is weakened by a misrepresentation of the nature of open-source software.

Most of the code involved in these developments is “open source,” meaning that the individuals and companies that created it have released it into the public domain. By doing so, they have relinquished their right to control and exclusively profit from the use of their creations. In this respect the Internet is free; the coding languages and communications protocols that make the Internet possible belong to no one and are therefore available for free use by anyone who has the requisite physical means—the computers and the data transmission lines that connect the computers to each other. (p. 35)

First, open-source software is not public domain software. Licenses such as the GPL, under which open-source software is often distributed, depend heavily on the application of copyright law to prevent individuals or companies from integrating open-source code into proprietary projects. This practice is known as “Copyleft,” and a good explanation of it may be found at www.gnu.org/copyleft.

Second, because open-source software is actually copyrighted, the individuals who create it dictate the terms of use (unrestricted and open) and may still profit from it. Companies such as Canonical and Red Hat, which distribute and contribute to their own respective flavors of the open-source operating system Linux, profit from service agreements, customer support, and so forth.

These points would have bolstered Mr. Niles’ argument insofar as they demonstrate that even the so-called “free” aspects of the Internet depend on the protection of private property rights.

Nicholas Cloud
Florissant, Missouri

Raymond C. Niles Replies:

I wish to thank Mr. Cloud for identifying my error. Open-source software is indeed copyrighted but offered to users under a license that ensures them access to the source code so that they can alter and further develop it. This has proven to be a successful model for software development, as it harnesses the power of many programmers to create and improve complex programs. Such success would have been impossible if copyright law—which protects intellectual property—did not enforce the terms of the license, including the requirement that future users of the code maintain open access to it.

Open-source software was and is important in the development of the Web. But the fact that the programming source code was made available in this manner does not change the fact that all aspects of the Internet—both the software and the hardware that stores and transmits data—are properly governed by the principle of property rights. “Net neutrality” is unjust and harmful to the functioning of the Internet because it seeks to violate property rights in the name of ensuring some government-determined notion of “fair access” to the Internet.

Raymond C. Niles
New York, New York

Comments submitted to TOS Blog are moderated and checked periodically. To be considered for posting, a comment must be civil, substantive, on topic, and no longer than 400 words. Ad hominem attacks, arguments from intimidation, misrepresentations, off-topic comments, and comments that ignore points made in the article will be deleted. Thank you for helping us to keep the discussion intellectually profitable.