If you’re a certain kind of nerd who follows a certain kind of blog roll, you’re probably familiar with Scott Alexander’s writings on the motte-and-bailey fallacy. This is a close cousin of the classic fallacy of equivocation, where the same word is used to mean different things during an argument. The fallacy of equivocation, in its most blatant form, looks something like this:

Taxes are a headache. Tylenol eliminates headaches. Therefore, Tylenol eliminates taxes.

Do you see the mistake? Of course you do. What we mean by “headache” when we use that term to describe taxes is not what we mean by the same word when we talk about the effects of painkillers, so obviously statements about painkillers don’t apply to taxes. The motte-and-bailey fallacy, as Scott Alexander describes it, is more of a sneaky argumentative tactic than a logical fallacy – he also suggests the less clunky term “strategic equivocation” to describe it. In his words:

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you retreat to an obvious, uncontroversial statement, and say that was what you meant all along, so you’re clearly right and they’re silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

I’ve noticed something like a motte-and-bailey happening over the last few years with the idea of tolerance. Tolerance, we are told, is a virtue, and to be publicly labeled as an intolerant person is to walk around carrying a scarlet letter “I” for the rest of your days. But what tolerance means, and what it requires, seems to be shifting. Originally, tolerance was meant in quite a literal way. To be tolerant of something was, well, just that. It simply meant that you tolerated it – you put up with it. You could dislike it, grumble about it, openly disapprove of it, and avoid it, but as long as you put up with it, you had fulfilled your obligation of tolerance.

These days, however, the goal post has shifted. Tolerance is no longer a call to simply tolerate something. It now means something more like active approval and affirmation. If you disapprove of X, or if don’t actively support and affirm X, you are therefore, now, intolerant of X. But…that’s nonsense, right? Surely, we all know that it’s possible to disapprove of something but still tolerate it, right? That’s where the motte-and-bailey comes in. It seems very common for people to demand “tolerance as positive acceptance” on the one hand, but later insist they’re only after “tolerance as being tolerated” when even slightly pressed.

Classical tolerance does not mean approval, it does not mean affirmation, it does not mean acceptance – it just means tolerating something. Wanting gay marriage to be made illegal is intolerant of gay marriage. Trying to pass a burka ban is similarly intolerant. But you can disapprove gay marriage or burkas and still tolerate them.

I believe in classical tolerance. To insist on your right to be tolerated, however you define it, is also to place an obligation on others. Classic tolerance, the sort of thing tolerance originally meant, places a justifiable obligation on others. It doesn’t require their approval. Indeed, I can clearly recall how those insisting on tolerance in decades past made it clear that approval was not required or even necessarily desired. The attitude was, “It doesn’t matter if you approve of me or not – your acceptance is not what I’m after. Just leave me free to live my life as I see fit, and to pursue happiness as I wish, and you can stew with disapproval about it to your hearts content, for all I care.”

Tolerance as acceptance, however, is placing a much greater demand on people. It says  “It’s not enough that you leave me to live my life in peace. You must also approve of how I live my life. I have a right to require that your personal thoughts, feeling, and convictions be favorably disposed towards me – if they are not, you have failed in your obligations to me.” This is too much. People don’t have a right to prevent you from living as you wish, but they do have a right to be wrong.


Kevin Corcoran is a Marine Corps veteran and a consultant in healthcare economics and analytics and holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics from George Mason University.

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