The topic of how to balance “tolerance of intolerance” is one that I am rather fond of. For me, it is the issue at the heart of civilised society. On the one hand, anything that remotely resembles a free and individualistic order has to allow for a plurality of opinions and extensive freedom of expression. On the other hand, it is clear that tolerance has to face some limitation - it would be ridiculous to tolerate the “freedom to rape”, for instance.
The debate has an added dimension when we factor in the role of cultural diversity. The need to tolerate another culture often directly conflicts with the need to protect the vulnerable from intolerance. The varied responses to Russia’s recent experimentation with homophobic laws illustrate the issue well. Many pundits, bloggers, and slacktivists have engaged in Internet criticism and ridicule of Vladimir Putin and his regime. Others, meanwhile, have challenged the validity of arrogant liberal Westerners imposing their views on another culture.
This is not a novel or an isolated debate. The philosophical issue at the heart of the matter is the same one that runs through all multicultural and relativist issues: to what extent can universal values be championed?
A strong relativism (in a normative sense) is patently not the answer. Such a position would hold that all cultures and practises are equally valid. It seems evident that at least some practises are reprehensible, and that at least some cultural changes are “good”. (Having said this, if anyone fancied defending slavery or human sacrifice, I would be curious to hear the arguments.)
Leaving aside this “obvious” point, strong normative relativism appears to be a confused doctrine. If you say that, for instance, a cultural taboo against, say, women being educated is valid on relativistic grounds, then it is also true that the preference of those who disagree with this are also valid. By endorsing the right of the “culture” to dictate its “own” norms, you are abandoning the minority within the culture who dissent. Attacking external critics of said culture is, then, hypocritical.
What’s interesting about cultural relativism is the “cultural” part. A pure relativism would simply be a form of amoralism, where you refrain from giving any action any objective worth. But this is not the claim that the common-or-garden relativist makes. For them, there is no cross-cultural objectivity. However, it is also assumed that a culture (or a nation or country) and its traditions can possess legitimacy.
This position must rest on a very unpalatable assumption: it needs to be assumed that, within any given society, the norms imposed by the majority trump the values of any minorities. This means that you are endorsing the highly illiberal propositions that: (i) the measure of an idea’s value is the number of adherents it claims; and (ii) the tyranny of the majority is legitimate. You are not just saying that these principles are acceptable. You are saying they are key premises for ethical and political positions.
I hope it is clear how these stances are as unjustifiable on ethical grounds as they are on epistemic grounds.
Rejecting this strong normative relativism does not, however, mean that one should embrace a sort of “liberal fascism”, wherein it becomes acceptable to “impose freedom”. From a pragmatic angle, it is clear that importing democracy and freedom by force does not work. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan alone demonstrate this.
Furthermore, there are legitimate reasons for tolerating illiberal practises and beliefs. However, these concerns should be framed as liberal considerations rather than relativistic ones. For instance, one can recognise that the burqa is a symbol of oppression, or that the desire to be “cured” of one’s sexual preferences is unhealthy, whilst withholding from the use of force in combatting the underpinning ideas.
Libertarianism, or Millite liberalism, therefore seems to be the clear answer to the “multiculturalist question”. At a domestic level, anything that does not involve actual harm or coercion should be tolerated. Practises like forced genital mutilation should be illegal for everyone, regardless of their “culture”. However, measures such as a “burqa ban” that force people to be “free” remain illegitimate.
It may be the case that someone is “unfree” to the extent that they identify with, and internalise, oppressive cultural norms. It is also true that forcing other (even “superior) values will do nothing to help them, whilst also adding another limitation to their liberty.
At an international level, it is true that many cultures and countries employ practises that any ethical person must condemn. However, it is also true that blundering in with guns blazing will do little to change these norms and will cause untold harm (again, see Iraq). Likewise, imposing crude international sanctions will also cause more harm than good, and there is no country or institution that would be sufficiently competent (or moral) to be placed in charge of setting norms.
However, this does not mean refraining from criticism. Just because you tolerate something does not mean you have to accept it. There are peaceful and consensual tools that can be utilised. You can educate those who willingly engage in practises that harm or constrain them. You can attack, boycott, and (perhaps most importantly) ridicule those who preach and impose oppressive practises.
Concerning Russian homophobia and the arrogance of Western “interference”, I believe that the campaign has proven to be a stellar example of how to tackle illiberalism in another culture. No one is seeking to force Russia to abandon its draconian law. Instead, people are ridiculing those behind it and are seeking to expose homophobic attitudes for being what they are (irrational and immoral).
If you honestly believe that the “right” of a country to set its own laws, free of any criticism from those who actually have the opportunity to express such views, trumps the rights of those suffering as a result of those laws, then there is something fundamentally wrong with your worldview.