Online disputes could do with more light and less heat

Opinion: The idea of tolerance has taken a long time to make its way in the world

Burning at the stake: it took a long time for humanity to learn it was not necessary to persecute people on the basis of their beliefs. Photograph: National Gallery of Ireland

Burning at the stake: it took a long time for humanity to learn it was not necessary to persecute people on the basis of their beliefs. Photograph: National Gallery of Ireland

Sat, Nov 2, 2013, 01:01

The philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet believed in progress. Looking around him in late 18th-century France, he saw improvement everywhere, a trend he thought certain to continue as learning became more widely diffused. The growth of scientific knowledge, he was sure, would inevitably benefit public morality, while social evils would disappear as the ignorance that caused them melted away.

But for knowledge to be diffused, the men of the Enlightenment felt, control over it would first have to be wrested from the clerics who ran the schools and universities. It would also have to be rendered more open and less dependent on authority or divine “revelation”. The pursuit of truth required competition between rival ideas and theories, a condition requiring an at least provisional tolerance of opposing views.

For more than a century after the Reformation, books and pamphlets carried fierce polemics between Catholic and Protestant controversialists and between rival Protestant sects. We do not know how many people’s minds were changed by this flood of words but it certainly helped provide a good living for thousands of printers, publishers and booksellers.

The idea that tolerance might be a good thing in itself began to make its way in the late 17th and 18th centuries, partially as a reaction against Louis XIV’s vicious persecution of French Protestants. But the persecuted could become persecutors too: the philosopher Pierre Bayle, who had fled from France to Rotterdam, was increasingly distressed by the cruelties that ensued when sectarianism was backed by the force of law as orthodox Protestantism – whichever brand happened to be orthodox in a particular place at a particular time – combated “heresy”. Increasingly, he came to believe that no one should be prosecuted for their beliefs – and certainly not any Protestant.

Agree to disagree
As the 18th century progressed, ideas of civility and politeness increasingly began to make their way and were applied to the style in which arguments should be conducted and ideas discussed. People should be able to disagree, it was now thought, without feeling the need to cut off one another’s heads. The new optimistic tone is reflected in the name given to the “virtual space” in which those interested in thought exchanged ideas internationally – the Republic of Letters.

Over the next 150 years democracy, reform and intellectual freedom advanced steadily. In the middle of the 20th century they were seriously challenged by totalitarianism but since 1989 free speech, freedom of association and, of course, freedom to “do business” have again emerged as the cherished centrepieces of our civilisational model: we can, on the whole, say what we want, write what we want and worship where, or indeed what, we want.

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