In a recent article Time to stand up for a tolerant society, Shashi Tharoor asks “Is India becoming a playground for the intolerant?”. While the concern is well-founded, the identification of the problem is not. There are two separate issues here, tolerance and censorship.
Tolerance is a moral concept. It applies to individuals and not to society. It means tolerating ideas or actions that one believes to be wrong. Tolerance requires that one suspend one’s judgement of ideas and people. Suspension of judgement betrays the good and sanctions the evil.
Censorship on the other hand is a political concept. It means preventing people from expressing their ideas by force of law. It is only the government that can indulge in censorship. Individual acts of force do not constitute censorship. In a proper system of law, such acts of force should be illegal.
The problem then, is not that people are intolerant. Tolerance is not a virtue. The problem is that there is no respect for rights, neither in the culture, nor in the government. The problem is that instead of punishing violent behavior by vandals, the government succumbs to the vandals’ threats and imposes censorship. The problem is that the laws allow censorship.
Tharoor’s article does not explain why tolerance is a virtue (except by an appeal to tradition), defends censorship (as in the Danish cartoons case), rejects any absolute right to freedom of expression and then bemoans the direction in which society is heading.
If this is the stance taken by an intellectual of Tharoor’s standing, is the direction any surprise?