The newly ensconced CEO of Mozilla, tech wizard Brendan Eich, the man who invented JavaScript, has just been asked to step down as the result of the gay rights outcry at his making a $1000 donation way back in 2008 to support the efforts of California’s Proposition 8. The lesson from the LGBTQUIA community: you can’t support heterosexual marriage and expect to keep your job. For those not up on the latest stretch of this acronym, that’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersexual, and Asexual—in short, everything that is not heterosexual, stacked together as a kind of sexual caucus defined by what it rejects.

There’s been a big backlash, both by people who oppose the gay rights agenda and those who support free speech. Major conservatives have called for a boycott. We await the result.

Now here’s the problem; here’s the reason we are experiencing a serious breakdown of civil discourse; here’s why shouts and tweets have replaced actual discussion. Our society has gone beyond being a pluralistic society that shares a common understanding of what male and female are, what sexuality is, what marriage is. You can’t discuss anything when you so radically disagree on the very foundations of what you are discussing. It isn’t that we’ve got two different views of sexual morality (as in different possible flavors of ice cream, or different styles of architecture). We’ve got views that are (to use philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s apt words) “rival and incommensurable.” They can’t exist in the same society because each is fundamentally opposed to the other.

While this newest dust storm in the culture wars either builds up or settles down, why don’t we try to get a little (actually, a lot) more clarity about the whole mess, especially the notion of tolerance. After all, it looks like we’re going to see more of the same in the future. Clarity here requires a fuller understanding of what true tolerance means.

Tolerance is an empty concept without any intrinsic moral aim. Real virtues (and vices) have moral aims, and so you can ask about them “Should we be ___________?” and get a definite answer. Should we be Just? Yes. Should we be unjust? No. Should we be Courageous? Yes. Cowardly? No. Should we be tolerant? Notice you can’t get a definite answer the way that you can in regard to virtues and vices. Whether you should be tolerant or intolerant depends on the further questions: “Tolerant of what?” “Intolerant of what?” Should the citizens of Germany in 1934 have been tolerant of the Nazi view, held by the elite intellectuals and not just German society’s dross, that Jews were an inferior and parasitic race? Here, tolerance is bad. Is it wrong to be intolerant of the notion that those of African descent are genetically inferior and so should not be allowed to vote? Here, intolerance is good. The lesson: whether we should be tolerant or intolerant of something depends upon whether that something is good or evil, just or unjust. Tolerance and intolerance are both empty concepts, not a virtue and a vice. They can’t do any moral work because they have no moral content.

So—bear with me for a little longer now—how did Tolerance get such elevated status in our culture? There are two related reasons, and I’ll start with the one that deserves the most blame.

Nihilistic Tolerance. Many who think Tolerance is the virtue are the happy heirs of the notion that there is no good or evil, and that human beings have no access to truth. Truth and moral goodness are entirely relative, and entirely ungrounded in the cosmos. Claims about truth or moral good and evil are merely expressions of personal preferences. Therefore, since no one can be right or wrong, and no moral or immoral belief is any better or worse than any other, we must be entirely tolerant of everyone else’s subjective preferences so they’ll be tolerant of ours. For the nihilist, Tolerance is the virtue, because there are no other virtues and no truths to discover and defend. Therefore, Tolerance replaces the virtue of justice. Or, to say it more exactly, justice comes to mean, “allowing everyone to do whatever he wants and think whatever he wants so you can do and think whatever you want.” Justice comes to be defined as Tolerance. You may think this is merely a new-fangled view, but it’s actually the view of Thomas Hobbes, one of history’s most influential political philosophers. He wrote in the mid-17th century.

But the nihilistic notion of Tolerance is rarely consistent. Usually it’s put forward more for the sake of revolution, than on the basis of nihilism itself. Some group that runs against the grain of society’s moral standards, wants to gain eventual full acceptance through first claiming that its members are owed tolerance (justice is thereby collapsed into tolerance). Once having gained a foothold through tolerance, the group then becomes passionately intolerant toward any residual moral opposition because it considers such opposition to be unjust and not just intolerant. Note what’s happening. The revolutionary group only uses Tolerance as a pseudo-moral shield to gain enough social acceptance so that it can claim affirmation as a matter of justice. The group’s members begin by demanding Tolerance but soon shift to a real moral virtue (justice) which nihilism itself can’t support. They can then muster all the natural human hatred of injustice to defend their cause, and so become passionately intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them or even of any discussion of the morality of their cause.

Realistic Tolerance. Realistic tolerance comes about because there is a recognition that, for whatever reason, one’s society is divided about certain issues or suffers certain defects, and these issues cannot be resolved or defects mended without incurring even more harm than is being caused by the division and defects. Unlike Nihilistic Tolerance, Realistic Tolerance doesn’t give up on the notion of truth or moral goodness. Rather it realizes that in this imperfect world, we must bear, we must endure, these defects the best we can, even while we as a society aim toward truth and virtue. Tolerance is not an end in itself; it is at best a means that allows us to live together as we strive, ever more diligently, toward truth and moral goodness. It allows us to be civil this side of heaven, or even better, patient with our fellow sinful human beings and with our own sinful selves.

Realistic tolerance is necessary because you can’t jerk a warped board straight. Tolerance, not indifference, is what God shows toward us, choosing to try to draw us to goodness patiently, slowly bend us to goodness with mercy rather than strict justice, so that he doesn’t snap our sinful warped souls. And patience, by the way, unlike tolerance, is a virtue, a sub-virtue of courage. We tolerate what we can only change slowly, or not being God, cannot change at all. Such toleration, such bearing and enduring, gives us a real virtue, Patience.

Realistic Tolerance has risen in importance precisely because our society is becoming more and more splintered. Our fundamental views about human nature, the human good, marriage, sexuality, truth, reality, and God are at greater and greater odds. We are therefore tempted, given the sheer multiplicity, the seemingly intractable plurality, to throw in the towel, ditch patience, and settle for Nihilistic Tolerance. As this pluralism increases, the necessity of tolerance becomes so overbearing, that it soon seems to be the only source of public order to which we can cling. It starts to look like the virtue. It’s not. As difficult as this situation is, those who still espouse Realistic Tolerance must not give up. We must have the courage, the patience, to speak boldly in the public square about the real virtues, about truth, even when we are assailed by the intolerant.