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Tolerance – understood in its classical liberal sense as a virtue essential to freedom – has been hijacked and bankrupted, argues British sociologist Frank Furedi.

“Dragged into the politicisation of identity, tolerance has become a form of ‘polite etiquette. Where once it was about the tolerance of individuals and their opinions, it has now been ‘redeployed to deal with group conflicts,'” he told the Guardian newspaper’s Madeleine Bunting. “Once it was about opening the mind to competing beliefs, now it is about one that affirms different groups. Along this slippery path, much of the original importance of tolerance has been distorted or lost.”

“For a secular godless age,” observes Bunting: “there is one virtue we promulgate about ourselves at almost all opportunities: tolerance. Among the British values often celebrated by politicians is our capacity for tolerance. Schools are required to instil values of tolerance into millions of children; Muslims are told to be tolerant by [British Prime Minister] David Cameron. Tolerance has become something of a founding mythology for western developed nations: our tolerance is regarded as a mark of our superiority over many less tolerant, less developed nations around the world. Our tolerance – in contrast to the intolerance of many of our ancestors – is evidence of the concept of historical progress.”

Bunting writes:

Our ancestors may have ripped each other apart over small theological differences, they may have persecuted those with different sexual preferences or ethnic identity, but in this enlightened age, we tolerate diversity. It is the one virtue the state regularly exhorts us to demonstrate.

But far from being the kind of unequivocal virtue the politicians proclaim it to be, take a closer look and the word collapses under the weight of contradicting expectations. A closer look is exactly what Frank Furedi, a sociologist, offers in a new book On Tolerance, which will infuriate and delight in equal measure – and probably leave a lot of confusion in its wake.

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