I was driving through a small town in Washington today when I spotted a billboard with a quote on it.

I looked at it for all of the three seconds it took to drive by it, but the quote on it caused it to stick in my head.

It said (something very close to): “Tolerance is the last virtue of a dying society”.  It was in quotes, so I know it was intended as a quote.  But there was no attribution.

As I moved along the road, I played it over a few times in my head trying to figure out what the message was trying to say.

Was it really trying to imply that tolerance is a bad thing?  That seemed unlikely.  Who argues that tolerance is bad?  Okay, I was able to come up with a few: zealots, xenophobes and small minded bigots.

But this was on a billboard owned by a business.  Typically I expect a business owner interested in retaining customers to not advertise their bigotry and small mindedness.

Was it trying to say that we’re a dying society because we’re tolerant?

I’m not sure I’d agree that as a society we are particularly tolerant.  It seems like when faced with repeated opportunities to be tolerant our default reaction as a society seems to be to defend the current state of society.  See the Defense of Marriage Act as an example where we legislate the status quo to try and defend something that’s not being attacked.

I think tolerance is something we strive to practice but as a society it’s a virtue that I think we’re too quick to set aside when we’re frightened by “the other”.

Beyond that, though, I was struck wondering who said such a thing?  Perhaps it lacked context.  Maybe if I knew who said it and why, I might find more merit in a statement that, on the face of it, seemed patently unacceptable.

So I made a note to myself to check the quote when I got home.

When I got home I googled the phrase and came quickly came up with roughly 5000 attributions for a similar statement to Aristotle: “Tolerance and apathy are the last virtues of a dying society”.

But, that’s not enough.  I wanted to understand the context in which that statement was made.  I kept thinking something must justify such a wrong headed statement.

Interestingly, a bit more research made it clear that I was not the only one who had spotted this or variations on this quote.

What was more interesting was that others had similarly researched the quotation and the consensus is that this statement was never made by Aristotle.

It was made up to justify ridiculous statements and positions, typically by right wing web sites.

As if wrapping it in quotes and attributing it to Aristotle somehow took the bad taste out of what was a pretty offensive statement.

By the way, here was one site that addressed the quote:

Lesson for the day: Question when someone says something as a “fact” or attributes it to someone to whom we might otherwise give intellectual credibility. And, finally, remember that even if Aristotle had said something so egregiously offensive, that doesn’t make it any less a stupid statement.