Toleration and Tradition: The Need For Limits | Kerem Sadikoglu


The progressive, liberal left of our days claims to be the best, if not the only, bearer of the banner of toleration in political life. A capital argument of theirs is therefore to suggest that the right is the enemy of toleration, that under the rule of their progressivism, any kind of lifestyle would be respected and lived freely, tolerating each other.

Toleration, then, is the notion that we must look into. While it would be unwise to say that tolerance was ‘invented’ by a specific thinker, it cannot be denied that John Locke’s writings on the subject had the most profound influence on politics.

When Locke studied toleration back in the 17th century, he did so as the struggle between the Church of England and English Catholics loomed in the background of all political debate. Even if Locke’s considerations were mainly based on religious toleration, that does not mean that we can’t get inspiration from these thoughts to draw conclusions on toleration in general. While Locke left the Catholic faith out of the sphere of religions to be tolerated by the State -for political reasons rather for theological ones, he found that the efforts to suppress dissenting churches would cause civil disobedience and social chaos. Therefore, for him, the State is obliged to tolerate the existence of other religions along with the official faith, if it wants to preserve the stability of the realm. Another interesting point made by Locke is that he also leaves “atheists” out of tolerable religious positions, along with Catholics. In his words, faithlessness should not be tolerated, as: ‘Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon or sanctity for an atheist.’

That citation merits more attention. We may take Locke’s Atheist not simply as an irreligious person, but also as someone who disregards, possibly rejects the idea of sacred itself. The ‘bonds of human society’ are clearly considered to be sacred, as the atheist’s denial of the sacredness of those bonds is the precise reason why the sacred bounds, that ensure the stability and the good faith of social relations according to Locke, fail to bound the atheist. Locke was wise enough to understand that to enjoy the freedoms promised by a liberal order, said freedoms must be counterbalanced by a set of rules, admittedly sacred. Toleration of all lifestyles -including those who reject the sacred- would be unimaginable; our interactions, without the bonds of trust and good faith sewn by our shared, deep rooted values, would be unsustainable. Comparing this to toleration understood as permissiveness today would tell us a great deal of the current state of liberal thinking.

Well, one might object, Locke is outdated. The ‘harm principle’ of John Stuart Mill seems to have eclipsed Locke’s seemingly narrow field of toleration. Now, all that can be restricted is reduced to the actions that cause harm to the other, with morals or conventions of that given society playing no part in determining the permissible actions. Morality, for Mill, is too relative to provide a basis for imposing restrictions on the individual.

But then, was the notion of “harm” in Mill’s principle ever debated? Is the harm that the unacceptable action causes to the other person necessarily physical? What of the harm which seemingly solely affects the person himself, could its effects restrict themselves solely to the person, just as the person remains inseparable from the society? How would his strictly personal, faulty act influence his interactions and his way of negotiating through the society?

Take the example of an influencer, who views his interactions with his followers as a way of profiting. Followers are not necessarily customers, as they buy nothing of value from the influencer, they rather have a position closer to ordinary people that the influencer interacts with while going about his day. Seemingly, the influencer’s profit-based perception of his interaction with his base does not harm his followers, nor anybody in an immediate manner. As this interaction goes on, wouldn’t this perception of his relations with profit-bringing followers distort his interaction with the rest of the society? The boundaries between the two groups of people are so blurred that his relations with the rest of us would change greatly. Obviously, it would be difficult, if not erroneous, to say that the effects of a personal act or of personal perceptions, stay personal.

Therefore, limits must be drawn on which behaviour to permit in our societies, as its effects never stay personal. Mill’s principle, easy to apply in appearance, simply does not provide a better answer on what is acceptable behaviour or not in a society than the other answers to the problem.

Looking into our traditions, into what we have inherited from our ancestors, provides us with much valuable insight. Traditions or traditional values may have become clichés, used by our political classes to garner support, only to be repudiated once they obtain the power they seek to adopt progressive dogma.

This does not alter the fact that for many of us, traditions hold a crucial place in mind. To understand the truth behind this, also to find a more truthful answer to the question of limits, we must investigate the notion of tradition.

A great portion of traditions are principles which regulate our behaviour in our community and also our relations with other persons. Traditions find their roots mainly in virtuous behaviour, they incite the individual to, at least, reflect virtuousness. Even if an individual may not be virtuous enough just yet to pursue virtues for their own sake; as he abides by (sometimes fearing repercussion) the traditionally approved, good behaviour of his community, he gets closer to a virtuous way of life, and his community benefits from his good acts in the end. The Romans revered following the principles and behaviour inherited from their previous generations as a virtue, which they named ‘pieta’ (piety). Cicero often lauds people who behave this way.

The relativists would counter this, along with people who explicitly refuse to adhere to tradition, either because they do not wish to change their behaviour or restrict themselves to conform, or they dislike the culture that they have inherited. Only in appearance that this presents a challenge to the truthfulness manifested by tradition.

Human nature, as Man’s abilities and his reason are definite, is prone to error. Meanwhile, he is also imperatively bound to his community, his society, as Aristotle put it with his words : “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.” To a human conscience, isolation is perhaps semi-death, as today we notice a constant flow of isolated people falling into despair, numbness, and rootlessness.

Bound to a society, the individual cannot let the society live and prosper by exposing it to his frequent errors. So, he needs guidance, and answers which would help him along his way when he encounters hindrance. Tradition bestows that guidance. Principles making part of the tradition were not made up in the mind of a single person, but through generations, collecting the painful lessons learned from the errors of the old along with the answers discovered when they encountered challenges. Had they not been truthful, had they not been able to ensure the continuity of the society by guiding us through our struggles to find an answer to life’s questions, they would not have been handed over by generations to generations in an enduring pedigree. The family provides us with the best example of this. Since the dawn of civilisation, families were formed by men and women to create life, this also includes cordial, loving relationships with relatives. A fulfilling family life is irreplaceable, we witness men and women sacrificing their chance at starting a family, only to get devoured by corporate greed. Communities must conserve their traditions as compilations of lessons learned, if they don’t benefit from this accumulation, they would not be able to endure the consequences of same mistakes made repeatedly. Today, in our culture of repudiation,  we risk refusing and eroding our heritage for the sake of unordered individual liberty, while we refuse to see that if society disintegrates into the ‘dust and powder of individuality,’ there would be no place to enjoy our liberties.

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” provides us with a fitting analogy. The invisible hand, in the realm of morality and tradition, suppresses what is harmful behaviour and prevents it from being transmitted, while conserving what is truthful and needed, letting it be inherited by the next generation. Another example would be of a river, accumulating precious alluvial through its path (history) and creating a fertile deposit (traditions) at its estuary.

As the values of a society find their roots in traditions, traditions come into play in the debate on toleration. How much should a way of life that repudiates tradition -tradition that governs our interactions, keeping us from repeating the mistakes of old, and provides a solid, common ground for our communities, be tolerated?

These thoughts might be interpreted as if we were unreservedly opposed to any change. Society inevitably faces change. It could be an agent in the finding of new, better, more fulfilling solutions to our agonies. Should that mean resting all change on the repudiation and the conscious erosion of tradition? In lieu of a heritage that ensured the continuity of and peace in our society for ages, should we put faith in the unknown results of untried, destructive ideas? How could we put children up for abortion by single mothers or same-sex couples, while it is indisputably established that the mother and the father play crucial roles in the development of a child into adulthood? We are not talking about an unexpected fire as a consequence of a chemical experiment, but about the potentially destructive consequences of these radical ideas on the members of a given society, or even on the grandchildren of said people.

There are only one or two ways to do something right, while one could fail at something in an immeasurable number of ways. Where the repudiation of tradition, as a compilation of answers found to the struggles faced by the individual in his existence, becomes a norm, people get lost in life inevitably. More and more people getting lost means the loss of our societies, therefore, of our civilization. We are all in dire need of wise guidance facing struggles of life, in finding our place in our world. There is no better guidance than that of the tradition.

Legitimising and encouraging ideas that repudiate tradition leads to people being uprooted, risking the loss of our civilisation and betraying our descendants. We have the grand and honourable responsibility of building on and passing on everything we enjoy by inheriting from our ancestors. It is time that we stop fooling ourselves with the idea of limitless toleration.


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