In their recent editorial piece, ‘Why America needs intolerance’, Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell (2016) argue that thinking about the notions of tolerance and intolerance has gotten mixed-up recently, with the result that something that is actually praiseworthy has become a kind of social bogeyman. This paper will show that these authors commit several fallacies in their reasoning toward this conclusion, with the result that the opinions expressed in the article are completely without genuine support.

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The article tells a story about one of the authors (Josh) asking his children what was the one thing they were most afraid of being called in school. Their answer was ‘intolerant’. The authors argue that the definition of tolerance has changed over time from something praiseworthy to something condemnable. They point out several positive examples of intolerance: Mother Teresa was intolerant of poverty; Nelson Mandela was intolerant of apartheid; Martin Luther King, Jr. was intolerant of racism; and so forth. The authors write: “In the traditional sense of the word, intolerance can be a beautiful thing. However, our culture has redefined tolerance, in turn painting the term intolerance with a harsh, unacceptable, embarrassing qualifier” (McDowell and McDowell 2016).

The remainder of the article goes into more detail, some of which will be mentioned below. However, the most basic fallacy that the authors are committing is already evident. It is true that the term ‘intolerant’ has a negative connotation. It is also true that the cases of ‘intolerance’ listed above involve laudable instances of refusing to accept certain states of affairs and practices. But the McDowells make two significant and interrelated errors in their discussion. First, it is simply not true that the meaning of ‘intolerance’ has changed. This can be confirmed by consulting any good dictionary, which in addition to providing current meaning tracks etymology. ‘Intolerance’ has always had pejorative connotations. The second error the McDowells make is to gerrymander the meaning of the word to apply to the praiseworthy practices and beliefs they mention. It is true, in a stretched sense, that Mother Teresa was intolerant of poverty. But all this means is that she was against poverty, and fought to eradicate it. Notice that a genuine, non-gerrymandered use of the term ‘intolerant’ is such that when someone is claimed to be intolerant of X, it follows that he or she is an intolerant person. Yet it is clearly false to claim that Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr., were intolerant people. Indeed, they spent their lives fighting intolerance.

What the McDowells are doing in their editorial is trying through obfuscation to deflect the charge of intolerance. So they offer something like the following argument: (1) People today are often criticized for being intolerant; but (2) Many great people were intolerant; therefore (3) There cannot be anything intrinsically wrong with being intolerant. This argument suffers from the fallacy of equivocation. If premise (1) is to be plausible, then ‘intolerant’ must mean something like ‘bigoted’. But if that is how the argument understands the term ‘intolerant’, then the second step of the argument is false. (Strictly speaking, of course, we might want to allow that some great people, living long ago, were bigoted in certain respects. But this allowance does nothing to help the McDowells. None of the examples they provide are people who were bigoted.) On the other hand, we can construe ‘intolerant’ as meaning something like ‘disapproving of certain practices’. Then (2) would be true. But (1) would be false. People are not criticized for being against certain things. Everyone is against certain things. People are criticized for being bigoted. Since their primary argument is an obvious case of equivocation, the case that the McDowells present is completely unsupported.

What about the rhetorical devices used in the article? The main rhetorical device is their obfuscation concerning the term ‘intolerant’. But there are other clues that the McDowells are doing something other than writing an informed, intelligent editorial piece. For example, they claim at one point that being tolerant of others has evolved from meaning merely giving others the freedom to believe or live differently than we do, into something quite different. “It has evolved into a demand that we accept, respect, and affirm the rightness of others’ views and behaviors—or be labeled intolerant, bigoted, and even hateful” (McDowell and McDowell 2016).

This time the authors are committing the fallacy of the straw-man. No one is claiming that we must accept others’ views. And it is certainly not the case that tolerance requires that we affirm the ‘rightness’ of others’ views. This idea does not even make sense. It is logically incoherent to accept the rightness of a view that one disagrees with. To accept the rightness of a view just is to agree with it. This point comes into sharp relief when the McDowells claim that opponents of intolerance, as the notion is properly construed, are committed to an outright moral relativism. They therefore add yet another logical fallacy to their list of accomplishments in the editorial piece: The fallacy of the false alternative. This fallacy is well-illustrated by the claim that one sometimes hears: either you are with us, or you are against us. These are not the only options. One can be neutral. Likewise it does not follow from that fact that one is tolerant of others’ views that one does not recognize any sort of absolute truth.

  • McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. “Why America needs intolerance.” Editorial. March 22, 2016. Online.