Intellectual Immunity

Published on 09/27/2010

A news story making the rounds suggests that people whose ancestors have lived in cities for many generations may have superior immunity to leprosy and tuberculosis. The study in question concludes that frequent exposure to those diseases in crowded urban areas tended to select those individuals who had better immunity by killing off the rest.

This conclusion has little bearing on whether you or I should be living in the city: everything depends on where your ancestors lived, and the diseases studied are not the scourges they once were. But it suggests a closely parallel phenomenon in the intellectual world. The development of physical immunity is much like the development of intellectual tolerance.

Tolerance itself is often portrayed as the disease, an abandonment of the absolute moral standards that made our civilization civilized. But we confuse tolerance with indifference. The two are not at all alike. Indifference is not caring about right and wrong. Tolerance is that grand old Christian (and Buddhist, and Muslim, and Jewish, and Hindu) principle of holding ourselves to a higher standard than the one we demand of other people. It is granting others the right to be wrong, to have bad ideas that we could never allow ourselves to hold. The very word “tolerance” indicates, not approval of what we know is wrong, but acceptance of what we cannot change.

The city exposes us to wrong ideas as soon as we walk out into the street. A Puritan village in colonial New England would find a single Baptist impossible to live with, and would either toss him out or kill him—whichever seemed likely to be most effective in preventing the infection from spreading. The city of today exposes us to a hundred different Christian sects, Orthodox and Liberal Jews and every shade in between, atheists, Hindus, Jains, countless varieties of Muslims, neopagans, Scientologists, and people who just made up their own religion last week. They can’t all be right; most of them must be wrong. Yet we all sit together on the same streetcar and don’t think much about it.

The people who can’t tolerate all this tolerance flee to a colorless suburb where they never have to meet anyone challengingly different. So the city tends to become more tolerant as the suburbs become less tolerant. The tolerance of the city becomes another grievance the suburbs have against it: the city, where evil people peddle their wrong ideas and get away with it. The boundary between city and suburbs hardens into the boundary between tolerance and intolerance.

Once again, it’s important to remember that this urbane tolerance is different from indifference. It can lapse into indifference, but it actually takes quite a shove to push it in that direction. The city is full of churches and temples and mosques, not because its  people believe that one religion is as good as another, but because each citizen knows for a fact that his religion is the only true one. But the urban Puritan knows that you can’t just get rid of the Baptist down the street. He’ll always be there, and he makes a pretty good neighbor if you don’t get him started talking about baptism. Gradually, surrounded by the hordes of Baptists, our Puritan builds up an immunity to them. The Baptists can build huge, ostentatious churches, and it won’t make the Puritan any less of a Puritan. This is tolerance: knowing that your neighbors are wrong, but living with them as neighbors anyway.