Formerly-fluent-in-French Bwogger Alan Wang attended a dialogue on modern tolerance in French and American communities.

This past Thursday, in Buell Hall, Maison Francaise (along with Columbia University Press, the Alliance Program, Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, and the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life) sponsored a debate between Columbia Law Professor Bernard Harcourt and Sciences Po Professor Denis Lacorne on this intriguing question: “Should we Tolerate the Intolerant?”

Moderated by Sheri Berman, professor of Political Science at Barnard, the panel began by discussing the changes in the definition and interpretation of the word “tolerance” from as early as the 16th century. Lacorne posited that tolerance has historically been limited to a religious context, citing the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the French Wars of Religion, which dates back to 1595. He also suggested that this definition of tolerance has had negative connotations, as the majority group or sovereign had to decide to “grant” tolerance to a small religious minority. Our modern understanding of tolerance, however, is far more influenced by recent events involving religious intolerance—Lacorne notes that 9/11, the 2015 Charlie Hebdo Massacre and subsequent Hypercacher Kosher supermarket siege, and the 2015 Bataclan Theater Massacre have all significantly influenced our more positive understanding of the word “tolerance,” as it relates to religion but also to race, gender, and discrimination. 

While this historical grounding of the debate on tolerance was certainly helpful, the debate quickly devolved into a complicated retelling of the annals of tolerance in France and Europe, as Lacorne went on to make abstract references to Locke, Voltaire, and Calvinism to help support his point. 

However, as several audience members would later note during the Q&A section, the argument’s main point was somewhat indiscernible. Berman, in an attempt to provoke more discussion on the central question, asked where the gray lines of tolerating the intolerant should be drawn. “Tolerance is neither clear-cut nor absolute,” Berman said, so what did Lacorne and Harcourt make of the more ambiguous cases of offensive speech or intolerance? “The line of violence is attractive, but too simplistic.” Harcourt agreed. While most everybody could easily say that speech inciting violence or “true threats” against groups or individuals should be limited and regulated, the answer became less clear when elements of blasphemy or satirization came up (as in the case of Charlie Hebdo). Should our societies prioritize respect for other religions? Or should religious minorities, as one audience member suggested, learn to “keep their place”? 

Harcourt chimed into the debate after Lacorne’s introduction, suggesting that truly “free speech” in our society was an impossibility. Speech, he argued, has always been regulated and monetized. There are always strings attached, especially on college campuses like Columbia’s. Speakers must be brought into predetermined event spaces, are often paid for their appearances, and thus campus speech is tightly regulated, even if it is regulated invisibly. Therefore, speech has always had societal implications, and should be treated accordingly. If we decide to tolerate intolerant hate speech, we risk allowing hateful and injurious rhetoric to develop towards marginalized groups in our community. If we decide not to tolerate intolerance, or to be “intolerant of intolerance,” we effectively become hypocrites—tolerance should not be applied on a case-by-case basis. 

The conversation then moved onto a modern examination of tolerance in France and the US. Laïcité, or secularism, in France has come under controversy following the 2010 ban on face coverings in public spaces, which has affected Muslim women who wear religious face coverings like the niqab or the burqa. This law has been seen as both secular and tolerant by advocates, as well as intolerant of minority religions by opponents. Similarly, the 2017 Charlottesville riots and removal of Confederate monuments in the US parallels the debate in France. Where are the boundaries of tolerance drawn? (And consequently, who gets to decide?) 

Ultimately, the conversation had the potential to spark a profound discussion on modern tolerance, and shed light on some of the most troubling issues that plague our society today. However, the discussion tended to digress into inaccessible dialogue for much of the debate, leaving the initial question feeling unanswered. Eighteenth century philosophical frameworks can only go so far when arguments require real, contemporary, and relevant evidence.

intolerance via Wikimedia Commons