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Customer Review

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the most important book I've read for ages, 28 Oct. 2011
This review is from: On Tolerance: The Life Style Wars: A Defence of Moral Independence (Hardcover)
"One regrettable consequence of the belief that intolerance towards harmful speech is necessary to protect minorities and the vulnerable is that movements that have traditionally supported free speech have switched sides"

When my sisters or I used to whinge about perceived slights and insults, my mother would soothe us with the mantra: "rise above it, dear". Furedi's book expresses the humane core at the heart of that remark. It's sad and telling that you never hear such an expression used today.

On Tolerance is timely and important. As, it seems, with all Furedi's books, it's liberally peppered with typos and grammatical errors; but these irritating distractions aren't enough to spoil his argument.

Furedi starts from the position that society has to allow people to make their own mistakes. Yes, we all make truly awful decisions sometimes; but without the moral autonomy to freely choose the path we want to take through life, we might as well be beasts. Notwithstanding the problems and heartbreak it causes, this independence is essential for us to become truly human.

Yet today, we accept the view that humanity is in permanent need of protection from itself. We invite rules and regulations into our private lives that would have been unthinkable in the past. From parenting to sexual health to what we eat and drink to what we say, we willingly allow governments to step in and dictate how we should behave.

Likewise, the old motto that `sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you', has been well and truly abandoned. Today self-censorship is the norm, and the notion of `zero tolerance' for offensive speech or behaviour is mainstream. We shy away from voicing strong opinions and disagreements in case they offend someone. Nowadays we accept that an unkind word can hurt you as much as a blow to the head. Yet what's missing from this viewpoint is the notion that you have a choice in how you respond to an unpleasant remark. And how you respond is what matters; the words themselves are merely words. The fact that we can choose whether to be offended or not, that our response, rather than the words themselves, is a matter of free choice and the only thing that counts, has been forgotten.

Furedi details the connection between bans on free speech and the loss of our moral independence. He takes up identity politics, hate speech, Holocaust denial, the Rushdie affair, evolutionary psychology, and umpteen weasel arguments for denying free speech to those whose views we detest in favour of some spurious notion about redefining tolerance to protect the vulnerable.

Furedi shows that `tolerance' today has come to mean a refusal to have an opinion, a sort of self-muzzling of the mind. In fact, true tolerance means we have to make moral judgements; and the most difficult one is the one that accepts people's right to voice repellent opinions. He also makes an important point about how today we don't allow others the benefit of the doubt; if someone says something we find repulsive, we are much more ready nowadays to shun them as entirely beyond the pale, rather than to a) argue back b) give them the benefit of the doubt. But true tolerance does mean giving people the benefit of the doubt.

This book should be required reading in schools, let alone public institutions and anywhere that unequal power relationships exist between people.
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