Politics of Easy Virtue

“Everyone, it is true, wishes to do as he pleases and is attracted to those who agree with him.”—Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ

It is easy to tolerate what we like. Where that quality really comes into play is when we exercise patience with ideas or behavior that are discordant with our own. That is not to say that tolerance operates in a vacuum. There are limits. Things like social acceptance or liberty are not self-defining; they are means to an end and never an end in themselves.

Nevertheless, when people wish to shut down all forms of dissent, even when those views and modes of expression are reasonable; when they react with condemnatory labels, as a way of avoiding genuine dialogue, their own motives are questionable. Thomas a Kempis goes on to say:

[W]ho is so wise that he can have full knowledge of everything? Do not trust too much in your own opinions, but be willing to listen to those of others…. I have often heard that it is safer to listen to advice and take it than to give it. It may happen, too, that while one’s own opinion may be good, refusal to agree with others when reason and occasion demand it, is a sign of pride and obstinacy (Imitation, I.9).

If you’re genuinely open-minded, you will understand what Thomas is saying. He notes that “we must at times give up our opinions for the blessings of peace.” He does not mean we must be opportunistic or unprincipled. Unfortunately some people who insist on “peace” really mean the silencing of those who don’t conform to their ideology. The examples of postmodern political and philosophical inconsistency are numerous.

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