Is Tolerance Political?

Denis Lacorne is the author of The Limits of Tolerance. Enlightenment Values and Religious Fanaticism (Columbia University Press, 2019), the English translation of Les limites de la tolérance (Gallimard, awarded the Prix Montyon by the Académie Française). In his book, Denis Lacorne traces the emergence of the notion of tolerance from early thinkers to the Age of Enlightenment and finally questions the notion and its various understandings through more recent events in France and the United States. What is tolerance? Is tolerance political? Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI.

What is “genuine” tolerance?

There is no “genuine” tolerance, but several forms of tolerance and several definitions which may conflict with one another. The latin root of the term, the verb tolero, means to accept, put up with or bear a burden. Politically it refers to a prince or a sovereign who accepts, permits or recognizes as legitimate a minority religion, without giving it the same rights as the official or established religion. This permission is always conditional and could be withdrawn at any time. This is what I call the “old definition of tolerance”. There is also a different definition, which does not see tolerance as a burden, but as the acceptance of a wide variety of viewpoints and beliefs, without establishing a system of domination. No church, no religion can be viewed as superior or inferior to another. Believers and non-believers alike possess equal rights and benefit from the same constitutional guarantees enforced by the courts. This is what I call the “modern definition of tolerance.” The important point is that members of minority religions, dissenters, heretics, schismatics, etc. are to be respected even though their beliefs do not have to be approved. In this case “all should live in peace like brothers, friends and citizens” as the Edict of Nantes once proclaimed.

There are also distinct "regimes of tolerance" which I describe in my book in the chapters on the Ottoman Empire, the Venetian Republic and Eighteenth Century North-America: an "imperial-bureaucratic regime of tolerance in Turkey, a “mercantilist” regime of tolerance in Venice and a “religious and colonial” regime of tolerance in North America.

In the same book I discuss the rise in the 1980s, particularly in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom of “multicultural tolerance.” This type of tolerance tends to privilege the group over the individual and values the preservations of traditions and rituals considered essential for the identity of the group. It is often conflictual, particularly when demands for exemption from general laws are expressed by non-mainstream religious groups such as Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and Amish.

Is tolerance a political act and has it always been?

Religious tolerance, the centre of my interest, cannot be separated from political considerations. Before the French and American revolutions, tolerance mostly depended on the will of a ruler according to the old principle Cuius regio, eius religio (“he who governs the territory decides its religion”) established after the Peace of Augsburg (1555). With the rise of liberal, constitutional democracies at the peak of the Enlightenment, tolerance implied the defence of new rights and principles: the equality of all citizens, whether believers or not, a genuine separation of Church and State, the complete neutrality of state authorities, the free exercise of religion in the public sphere, and by implication a complete freedom of expression (which led to the abolition of anti-blasphemy laws). Tolerance became inseparable from what Tom Paine called a “universal right of conscience.”

Critics of the concept of tolerance have often argued that tolerance is a mask for hidden power relations, the expression of a discourse of domination. For these critics, ethnic minority and non-traditional gender groups are only tolerated because they are not recognised as full, equal participants in the community of citizens. Such critiques are in certain ways justified, but they only apply to the old concept of tolerance as I define it, and they also tend to exaggerate the differences between a supposedly tolerant West and an intolerant non-West.
Intolerance and religious fanaticism are very much a part of Western history as illustrated by the Crusades, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, the short term triumph of Savanarole in Florence, the Thirty Years War or the execution of young Chevalier de La Barre for the crime of blasphemy in the France of Louis XV.

A few years ago, in France, the use of a “burkini” by a few women on beaches in the south of the country triggered “an absurd and sterile debate in the media”, you write in the epilogue to this English edition of your book, “about the dignity of women and the place of religion in the public sphere.” A few weeks ago, in early 2019, in France again, a sportswear brand renounced selling a sports hijab due to political and public pressure. Do you think the issue of gender can be used as a means of hiding religious intolerance?

Modern Tolerance as I understand it implies that religious minorities are not discriminated against and that the public square is open to all, including those who wear religious clothing. It is often difficult to differentiate between cultural and religious traditions, but state officials are not theologians and it is not up to them to permit or ban Islamic veils, burkinis or sports hijabs. The Conseil d’Etat in its decision against the burkini ban on French beaches reaffirmed strong constitutional principles (principes généraux du droit) with which I fully agree: one should be able to “come and go” in the public sphere as he or she wishes; choosing a dress or a sports hijab is an essential personal freedom that should not be restricted by an arbitrary and discriminatory public policy.

In my view, personal freedom, religious freedom and freedom of trade and industry trump other principles such as dignity and equality between men and women which remain poorly defined by French courts with regard to allegedly religious clothing. In 1905, when Charles Chabert, a French deputy from the department of the Drôme proposed an amendment to the famous 1905 Law on the Separation of Church and State, banning all priests’ robes in public, Aristide Briand, the law’s principal sponsor denounced a measure which would have exposed the government to the “reproach of intolerance” and to a much greater danger: “ridicule.” From the viewpoint of a Muslim woman, the burkini like the sports hijab signify leisure, fun and fitness. Objecting to such clothing can only tarnish the legitimacy of French secularism (laïcité).

Should the defence of free speech mean that we should tolerate the intolerant? Does free speech have limits?

There are indeed limits to free speech and they vary from country to country. In the United States, hate speech, i.e. speech that can be hurtful or can create harm is protected by the First Amendment. This includes speech that can be perceived as offensive or racist or which stigmatizes a person because of his/her race, religion or gender. The only limit is a speech causing a person or a group of person to fear for their safety. The only red line is “imminent lawlessness” or imminent violence. A neo-Nazi demonstration, the use of anti-semitic, racist or homophobic slogans are acceptable as long as they do not create a situation of imminent and intentional violence.

In Europe, according to a famous decision of the European Court of Human Rights (Handyside v. United Kingdom, 1976), opinions that “offend, shock, or disturb” a fraction of the population are acceptable as long as they do not disturb the public order. For most European countries, the defamation of religions does not constitute a crime. Mocking religious beliefs in works of art, cartoons, or films is acceptable as long as it expresses a robust debate of ideas, fully compatible with “the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness” (European Court of Human Rights). But there are subtle variations from country to country. Germany and France, for instance, have adopted laws that penalise the denial of the Holocaust.

There are other limits to free speech. In France, religious beliefs do not constitute a protected form of speech: there is no right to the respect of religious beliefs. Offensive or insulting caricatures such as Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Muhammad are accepted as a legitimate expression of free speech as long as they do not target the whole Muslim community but a fraction of it: a small group of extremists. Hate speech or insults that are not aimed at beliefs as such, but at believers are prohibited and can be penalized by the courts if they constitute a provocation favouring discrimination, hatred or violence against a group of persons on account of their ethnic, national, racial origins or religious affiliation (Pleven Law of 1972 modifying the French Press Law of 1882). Tolerance when pushed to its limits is dangerous and can have unpredictable consequences. Such a danger should be recognized and accepted: it is what democracy is all about. But physical violence (or imminent violence) exercised by fanatics cannot be accepted.

Access and order the book on the publisher’s website, here.

Find out more 

Related articles

Subscribe to News from Sciences Po

L’argent des ménages, un objet politique

L’argent des ménages, un objet politique

États-Unis, 2008  : des panneaux “For Sale” poussent aux portes de milliers de pavillons, devenant le symbole du surendettement - quasi forcé - des ménages. Mais la crise des subprimes, aussi scandaleuse qu’elle soit, cache une vérité plus durable : celle des foyers qui s’endettent pour se soigner, des étudiants empruntant pour payer leurs études et dont la dette équivaut aujourd’hui à 75% du PIB états-unien. Si, en France, l’État-providence protège encore de tels phénomènes, il n’en reste pas moins que la question se pose. Désireux d’y répondre, les pouvoirs publics mettent en place de nouvelles politiques de l’argent. Quelles sont-elles et que nous disent-elles de l’État et de la société ? Analyse par Jeanne Lazarus, sociologue de l’argent, chargée de recherche CNRS au Centre de sociologie des organisations.

Lire la suite
Stiglitz et Zelizer, docteurs honoris causa

Stiglitz et Zelizer, docteurs honoris causa

La sociologue Viviana Zelizer et l'économiste Joseph Stiglitz se sont vus décerner le titre de docteur honoris causa de Sciences Po, au cours d'une émouvante cérémonie le mercredi 13 novembre 2019. Cette distinction récompense les deux chercheurs ; la première en tant que fondatrice de la sociologie économique et le second comme figure de la nouvelle économie keynésienne. Ces précieux apports à leurs disciplines respectives ont été soulignés lors des éloges prononcés par Jeanne Lazarus et Jean-Paul Fitoussi.

Lire la suite
En chantier

En chantier

A la rentrée 2021, Sciences Po verra le déménagement d’une partie de ses activités sur le site du 1, place Saint-Thomas d’Aquin à Paris : l’ancien hôtel de l'Artillerie aura achevé sa mue pour devenir le coeur du futur campus parisien. Mais, pour le moment, le lieu est le terrain de jeu des pelleteuses et des hommes de l’art. Notre photographe, Martin Argyroglo, s'est baladé sur le chantier.

Lire la suite
150 étudiants de Sciences Po au Paris Peace Forum

150 étudiants de Sciences Po au Paris Peace Forum

Du 11 au 13 novembre 2019, se tient à Paris la deuxième édition du Paris Peace Forum. Initié par le président Emmanuel Macron et co-organisé par 8 membres fondateurs dont Sciences Po, ce forum réunit de nombreux acteurs de la gouvernance mondiale. 30 chefs d’État et 150 étudiants de l’École des affaires internationales de Sciences Po (PSIA) ont répondu présents.

Lire la suite
Quels financements publics pour les énergies renouvelables en France ?

Quels financements publics pour les énergies renouvelables en France ?

En France et dans le monde, le développement des énergies renouvelables électriques s’est jusqu’à présent largement appuyé sur des mécanismes de soutien public. Ces mécanismes financent généralement la différence entre la rémunération de leur production sur le marché de l’électricité et le prix cible garanti par l’État au producteur renouvelable. Alors que la programmation pluriannuelle de l’énergie (PPE) vise à multiplier par trois les capacités de production éoliennes et photovoltaïques en dix ans et que, dans le même temps, les coûts de production de ces technologies sont amenés à baisser, quel besoin de financement public pour les énergies renouvelables électriques peut-on anticiper ?

Lire la suite
Joseph Stiglitz, l'économie contre les inégalités

Joseph Stiglitz, l'économie contre les inégalités

Joseph Stiglitz, prix Nobel d'économie, séjourne ce semestre d'automne à Sciences Po, partageant à cette occasion ses travaux avec les étudiants et les chercheurs de l'établissement. L'économiste se livre ainsi sur son parcours et sa carrière, mais aussi sur ses inspirations, ses rapports à l'œuvre de Keynes et ses convictions pour de meilleures politiques publiques, luttant de manière efficace contre les inégalités.

Lire la suite

"Sciences Po, c'est le Harvard français"

La Mastercard Foundation, en partenariat avec Sciences Po, attribue des bourses qui permettent d’accompagner et de former des étudiants du continent africain talentueux et engagés. Témoignages d'étudiants bénéficiaires de ce dispositif.

Lire la suite
Make it Work : Sciences Po s'engage pour le climat

Make it Work : Sciences Po s'engage pour le climat

Suite à l’annonce de Frédéric Mion, en mars 2019, Sciences Po s’engage pour le climat à travers un ensemble d’initiatives éco-responsables regroupées sous le programme “Climate Action: Make it Work”. Programme événementiel dédié, audit des enseignements, plan d'action écoresponsable, consultations en ligne : toutes les communautés de Sciences Po sont invitées à devenir des acteurs engagés pour mener la transition écologique.

Lire la suite
Eric Vinson : “Le droit de croire ou de ne pas croire”

Eric Vinson : “Le droit de croire ou de ne pas croire”

Destinée aux ministres du culte, aux cadres des communautés religieuses et aux professionnels travaillant autour du fait religieux et de la laïcité, “Emouna” est une formation unique dans le paysage universitaire français. Ce programme propose en effet à ses étudiants de découvrir l’environnement politique et institutionnel qui entoure les pratiques religieuses, la laïcité et les différentes religions. Le tout, dans une perspective interdisciplinaire et non-confessionnelle. Qu’est-ce qu’un programme laïque sur les religions ? Qu’y apprend-on ? Depuis 2018, Eric Vinson, spécialiste du fait religieux et de la laïcité, est le responsable pédagogique de cette formation. Il nous explique le sens d’Emouna.

Lire la suite
Nicolas Mathieu : “J’aime la littérature réaliste et cruelle”

Nicolas Mathieu : “J’aime la littérature réaliste et cruelle”

Prix Goncourt 2018 pour son livre Leurs enfants après eux, qui prenait pour sujet la jeunesse désoeuvrée de l’est de la France, Nicolas Mathieu était l’invité de Sciences Po ce 23 octobre 2019. Abordant les sujets de ses inspirations littéraires, de la reproduction des élites ou encore de la politique, l’écrivain s’est prêté au jeu de l’interview vidéo.

Lire la suite