Tolerating Intolerance – should we still ‘defend to the death the right to say it’?


“For a man who calls for a ban on the Koran to act as the champion of free speech is a bit rich” – The New York Times on Dutch politician Geert Wilders

Wednesday 30th October 2103. 7pm to 9pm. Doors open at 6.30pm
Channing Hall, 45 Surrey Street, Sheffield S1 2LG (map here)Admission £5 and £3 (concs).
Tickets available in advance from Sheffield Arena Box Office (plus £1 booking fee), Sheffield City Hall box office (no booking fee if bought in person) and on the door at the event. We will also be selling advance tickets for this event at the neuroscience salon on 25th Sept.
In association with
Off The Shelf festival of words

Outwardly, we live in a society that appears more open-minded and tolerant than at any time in our history. Indeed, we are frequently reminded of the need to understand the importance of respecting different cultures, beliefs and ‘diversity’. Individuals or organisations deemed to be ‘intolerant’ now provoke widespread moral condemnation and censure. The widespread celebration of ‘tolerance’ across the spectrum, from David Cameron to the European Court of Human Rights in countless public statements and declarations, is testament to the rhetorical appeal of a concept that is now seen as being synonymous with being ‘non-judgemental’.

However, the promotion of ‘tolerance’ today can sometimes appear to embody contradictory values. Hand in hand with the 21st century culture of tolerance there appears to have grown up a parallel culture of public intolerance toward people whose beliefs contradict this new, conventional wisdom. The statement ‘I am tolerant of everything but intolerance’ has gained widespread acceptance as have demands to restrict the freedom of speech and expression of those whose views we might find offensive. Calls to ban the public expression of ideas by those considered racist or homophobic (or who mock religion) are also paradoxically couched in terms of defending tolerance and diversity.

In this salon we will examine the genesis of tolerance as a pragmatic survival strategy for European societies riven by factional strife and on the brink of self-destruction during the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. We will also explore the contemporary application of tolerance and the extent to which the original philosophical and political insights have anything to teach us today.

So, should we be ‘tolerant of everything but intolerance’ and accept that freedom of thought and expression have very definite limitations? Or, does tolerance mean having to live with the thoughts and words of others with whom one might vehemently and fundamentally disagree?  Put another way, and to paraphrase a biographer of Voltaire, is it a question of disapproving of what someone says, but defending to the death their right to say it? Could it also be argued that rather than being an exercise in suspending our critical faculties or even indifference, effective strategies for tolerance actually depend on a degree of considered judgementalism about the beliefs and values of others? Does tolerating views we abhor also mean assuming a responsibility for challenging them in open debate within the public sphere? Might it even be possible to learn positive lessons from those whose ideas we find objectionable and to consider that in these morally uncertain times there might be many ways to the truth?

These are some of the questions which will be raised at this special collaboration between Sheffield Salon and Off The Shelf. Come along and be part of an ongoing conversation between the people of Sheffield and respected academics in the fields of the arts, science, medicine, sociology, philosophy, politics and history. Over the past two years the format of Sheffield Salon events has varied according to our subjects, but always centres around the concept of this being an exploration of meanings within a topic, with many points of view, rather than being merely a ‘talking heads’ session of experts.

 Frank Füredi (Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Kent, commentator and author of Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone? and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.)

Angie Hobbs (Professor for the Public Understanding of Philosophy, University of Sheffield and contributor to BBC Radio 4s In Our Time, the Today programme and Radio 3s Night Waves)

Anthony Milton (Professor of History, University of Sheffield, author of Catholic and Reformed – The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600–1640 and founding editor of Politics, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain).

Alternative lectures: What is Humanism? (Part 1)
Professor Frank Furedi answers the question ‘What is Humanism?’ in this short lecture filmed in the WORLDbytes studio. 
While humanist ideas have been around for a long time, Furedi observes, they have never been more weakly affirmed than at present. In ancient as well as Renaissance times, thinkers struggled with questions around what forces determine our destiny and began to formulate ideas that human beings themselves, rather than God or nature, had a responsibility for making the world. Humanism, we learn, begins to flourish in Renaissance Italy and finds more mature expression in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Modern determinisms, such as nineteenth-century economic determinism or today’s eco-determinism, biological determinism or psychological determinism, are all really evasions or excuses that diminish our own sense of taking responsibility for what happens. A Humanist outlook should equip us with an orientation towards reason, problem-solving and a healthy scepticism towards determinisms (or the fates) in the present day. Professor Furedi doesn’t overcomplicate the issue or use mystifying jargon in this refreshing and enlightening lecture.

Watch Part Two here:

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