Toleration to-day is becoming a different thing from the toleration of different times. The toleration of the past consisted very largely in saying. "You are utterly wrong and totally accurst, there is no truth but my truth and that you deny, but it is not my place to destroy you and so I let you go." Nowadays there is a real disposition to accept the qualified nature of one's private certainties. One may have arrived at at very definite views, one may have come to beliefs quite binding upon one's self, without supposing them to be imperative upon other people. To write "I believe" is not only less presumptuous and aggressive in such matters than to write "it is true," but it is also nearer the reality of the case. One knows what seems true to one's self, but we are coming to realize that the world is great and complex, beyond the utmost power of minds such as ours. Every day of life drives that conviction further home. And it is possible to maintain that in quite a great reminder of ethical number of ethical. social, and political questions there is no absolute "truth" at all -- at least for finite beings. To one intellectual temperament things may have a moral tint and aspect, different from that they present to another; and yet each may be in its own way right.
-- H. G. Wells, Mankind in the Making, 1904
The first futurist -- I called Wells the"First Citizen of the Future" in my biography of him -- understood, at least early in his career, that he was not a prophet. Rather in books such as Anticipations and Mankind in the Making, he was developing a sophisticated and exuberant schema for thinking about change and its consequences, which is the first key to thinking seriously about the future or possible futures we may inhabit.
Yet in those early books he was also something of an optimist, or at least a hopeful social critic as the passage above indicates. Wells held real hope, even belief, that the spread of education and literacy, culminating in a universal encyclopedia that made the whole of human knowledge available to all the world's citizens, and in doing so would make possible a true global dialogue.
For with such dialogue came the possibility of true hope. Its cornerstone was to be a further refinement and enhancement of the toleration he writes of in the opening of Mankind in the Making. In that book, even as his larger vision of education was taking shape, he wrote of his hope that readers who disagreed with him would
exchange a vague disorderly objection for a clearly defined and understood difference. To arrive at such an understanding is often for practical purposes as good as unanimity; for in narrowing down the issue to some central point or principle, we develop just how far those who are divergent may go together before separation or conflict becomes inevitable, and save something of our time and of our lives from those misunderstandings, and those secondary differences of no practical importance whatever, which make such disastrous waste of human energy.
Wells's vision darkened as the years passed -- the passages quoted here appeared a decade before World War I began; he lived long enough to see the Second World War with its horrors, culminating in atomic energy used to devastating military ends.
He did not, obviously, live long enough to see more than the first hints of the promise of computers and telecommunications.
Yet I wonder, were he able to see the Internet, with its ability to provide virtually any piece of knowledge to virtually anyone on the planet, and at the same time see or even experience how as one consequence of the Internet's universal accessibility of public communication, just how very much of that conversation and commentary on "ethical, social, and political questions" is presented only from a perspective of "there is no truth but truth" -- and presented so in the harshest, most condemnatory and derisive, even hate and loathing-filled tones and tenors, I wonder ----.
I wonder if presented with our modern world and even an hour of political, social, ethical chatter and cant, I wonder Wells would view his younger self as a naif, even a fool for having held out hope for reasonable dialogue, debate, and accommodation, or his older, bleaker self as the truest Cassandra, the realer prophet.