Review of On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence by Frank Furedi (Continuum 2011)


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Review of On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence by Frank Furedi (Continuum 2011)
  Published in  Morning Star  (2011) On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence  by Frank Furedi (Continuum 2011, £16.99 ) In this eloquent and provocative book, Frank Furedi mounts a defence of the classical liberal ideal of tolerance, and the concomitant notions of freedom of thought, individual autonomy, and the need to restrain the tendency of state power to determine how individual citizens ought to lead their lives. Furedi’s hero is John Stuart Mill, and Mill’s book On Liberty  is the most extensively cited classical text in Furedi’s narrative: in particular, inspired by Mill Furedi argues that the only qualification the state should impose on the individual’s freedom is that its exercise does not cause physical harm to other people. Eloquent as the book may be, though, it is marked by a combination of political bias, historical blindness, and theoretical superficiality. For an example of political bias, consider Furedi’s attack on those who try to ban Zionist speakers from speaking on university campuses – and note that there is no mention of the plight of Palestinian academics and students unable to teach or study properly in their own land. For another example of political bias closer to home, consider Furedi’s citation of “health and safety concerns” in the context of a discussion of “regulation of speech” as a form of unacceptable “risk aversion”. One of Furedi’s reasons against state regulation of speech is that “it has the effect of discouraging people from discovering their own road to moral independence”. Try telling that to the family of someone killed or maimed at work because of an employer cutting corners with “health and safety concerns”. For a spectacular example of historical blindness, consider Furedi’s comments on ancient Athens, which he describes as “relatively open to the idea of tolerance” and as “the cradle of democracy”. Furedi makes no attempt to explain how these comments are consistent with the fact that Athens was a slave society. Indeed, Furedi does not even mention the existence of slavery in ancient Greece. This blindness with respect to the economic structure of ancient Athenian society is indicative of a general tendency towards superficiality in Furedi’s writing. Emphasis on toleration as a political and philosophical ideal evolved most noticeably in the period of feudalism’s decline, and you surely don’t have to be a card carrying historical materialist to think that this points towards a relationship between the political and the economic that is at least worth exploring. Could it be significant that the philosophical heyday of the concept of toleration was during capitalism’s ascendancy, and that its hollowing out into a meaningless soundbite is occurring most rapidly in the later stages of capitalism’s decline? Unfortuntately, Furedi comes nowhere near to addressing these questions. ALEX MILLER   
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