Postmodernism is the philosophy we had to have. It is quintessentially egocentric: I am the centre of my world. Like all theories in all fields of study, postmodernism has positive contributions to understanding the world but it also has its limitations; which isn’t a problem as long as it stays within those limits.

One aspect of postmodernism is a double-edged sword: its foundation of relativism; that is, every person sees life from a different perspective. The danger of this is someone might say that my perspective should be preferred to yours. For example, occasionally one hears the claim, normally tongue-in-cheek, that the main characters in Biggles series of books are homosexual. This is because the postmodern reader interprets the idiomatic English of the 1950s by what they understand it to mean (called “reader-response theory”), not what the author meant. This is eisogesis, and says more about the reader than about the writer. But as the claim is usually tongue-in-cheek (that’s the way I interpret it), the reader is aware of the different meanings and chooses to make a joke of it. The joke only works when both the raconteur and the audience understand the double entendre.

The danger lies in when we, or our coterie, have our own meaning for a word that isn’t understood by others, and maybe even we don’t recognise the difference. Or maybe we’re just a prat, as was the instance of a chap in a restaurant who ordered a rare steak. The steak came out cooked perfectly rare. The customer claimed it wasn’t rare. The waitress knew it was, but took it back and returned with another steak, cooked rarer than the first. Again the customer claimed it wasn’t rare. The savvy waitress asked, “Do you mean ‘blue’?” (That is, barely cooked at all). The pompous guest answered, “That’s what I mean when I say ‘rare’.”

Of course, the waitress should have been able to read his mind. The fact that everyone else in the world says “rare” when they mean “rare” shouldn’t have interfered with her telepathy. Apart from being pompous, the customer exemplified one of the potential problems with postmodernism: “This is what I mean, and you should accommodate yourself to my meaning, not the other way around.”

This egocentric attitude means that we no longer share the same language: the words are the same, but the meaning is different. How can we communicate if we don’t use the same language? This is a conundrum because, if we take relativism seriously, we shouldn’t expect anyone else to conform to our definitions – and we shouldn’t condemn anyone who has different beliefs to ours. But too often, people do. The most common postmodern insults are: intolerant, chauvinist, misogynist, and bigot. Those doing the insulting justify their hatred by saying that those others are wrong; implying they deserve to be hated and rejected. In so doing, they also reject relativism and tolerance, which they claim to cherish.

“Tolerance” has become the motto of the western world over the past fifty years. Likewise, “intolerant” has become the worst insult you can give someone. The problem is that some people hold a different definition of tolerance, so not everyone means the same.

According to the history and the dictionary, tolerance means allowing a person to hold their beliefs, even if you think those beliefs are incorrect. Tolerance means agreeing to disagree; treating someone with respect and courtesy, even though you detest what they believe. Tolerance makes for social equality; however, equality is not uniformity, which is to say that everyone’s beliefs are, if the not the same, then equally valid (or invalid). If you disagree, that’s okay. I don’t mind you being incorrect.

Professor Michael Ruse epitomises this kind of tolerance.

That the Creationists and fellow travelers, notably proponents of Intelligent Design Theory (IDT), would dislike my views I take as axiomatic. They should dislike my views for I spend my life fighting against these people. I say this notwithstanding the fact that, at the personal level, I have good and friendly relations with many of the leaders…although I deplore their beliefs and think them deeply dangerous…. I don’t accept their beliefs but I respect their right to have them. [1]

Founded on relativism, postmodern tolerance means that everyone’s beliefs are “valid”: that is, your beliefs are true for you, even if not for another person. Hence, to say a person is wrong is intolerant: the cardinal sin of postmodernism. However, in practice, most postmodernists tolerate some things (read: accept them as good or okay) but are intolerant of others (read: reject them as wrong). Differences that people can do nothing about – race, sexuality, age, ability – are “tolerated”. This is as it should be; but it is acceptance, not tolerance.

Acceptance of others’ differences is one aspect of traditional, modernist tolerance. The second aspect, which is absent from the postmodern definition of tolerance, is that we disagree with the other person’s views: we may even despise those views. If we think a belief, attitude or behaviour is wrong, this is when we have to choose if we tolerate it. But we don’t need to tolerate something that we believe is right or good.

There are behaviours and attitudes that modernists and postmodernists can agree are wrong and should not be tolerated; for example, murder, rape, or child abuse. In this way, the postmodern definition of tolerance fails to pass both the tests of logic and of life in the real world.

What is worse, it isn’t unknown for a disciple of postmodernism, when they meet someone who disagrees with them, especially about subjects they are passionate about (usually those regarding human equality), to excoriate that person with insult, abuse and rejection. Such behaviour is never acceptable, but in someone who claims to be tolerant, it is hypocrisy.

Being passionate about equal treatment for all people is understandable and admirable. But we need more than equality. The chap in the restaurant may have treated people equally; equally badly. All people should be treated with respect and courtesy as well. This is tolerance: to treat someone well even though you despise their opinions or beliefs. Again, see the quote from Michael Ruse.

We are different in many ways: some of those ways might, we believe, not be good for ourselves or others. When we disagree about what is good or right of beneficial for individuals or society, this is when we need to tolerate the other person. This doesn’t mean we accept that their beliefs are true, merely that the person has the right to hold those beliefs without being disrespected. Debate those beliefs, yes; show them where you believe they’re wrong; but don’t attack the person. We must distinguish the person from their beliefs and their beliefs from their attitude. Granted, this is difficult to do when we feel the other person is attacking us personally.

In Flash for Freedom, one of the characters said, about a person who had misunderstood him and attacked him verbally, “He was a man of principle and conscience. His only fault lay in his inability to perceive that I have both commodities also.”

We’re in this world together. We won’t make it a better one by treating people badly.


[1] “Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster.”