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Beyond tolerance

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - December 29, 2020 - 12:00am

Last month, the United Nations celebrated International Day of Tolerance. On the official webpage, the body included a quote from the writer and philosopher Voltaire: “What is tolerance? It is the prerogative of humanity. We are all full of weakness and errors; let us mutually pardon each other our follies – it is the first law of nature.”

But is tolerance really something as simple as that? Not in practice, not in a pluralistic world with hierarchies of power always in play. While one can say that the cure for the evil of injustice is the virtue of justice, one cannot say that the cure for the evil of intolerance is the virtue of tolerance. In part this is because tolerance is not always good, as tolerating bigotry would not be; and intolerance of something evil such as human trafficking would be a virtue and not a vice.

In the book “Toleration in Conflict,” Rainer Forst breaks down the concept of tolerance in a way that makes clear its complexity. The first thing we have to realize about tolerance is that something we tolerate is something that we think is wrong – there is a negative judgment applied from the start. We don’t speak of tolerating something that we think is right, or something we have no opinion about – we only tolerate what we personally disapprove of.

Because we’re all imperfect, as Voltaire put it, some level of tolerance is essential to living in a community, even one as small as a family. But this isn’t only necessary because of the possibility of other people acting badly, but simply because other people are different from ourselves. We live in a society where we have the potential to be exposed to a wide variety of beliefs and behaviors. Some of these we may simply dislike – not everyone will share your opinions about the best coffee, or cheer for your favorite sports team, or enjoy the same kinds of music. In matters of subjective opinion like this, tolerance is essential.

But there are beliefs and behaviors that we object to on moral or ethical grounds, and that’s where things begin to get more complicated. Many people ground their ethics in their religion, and the plurality of religions – or interpretations of the same – even in countries like the Philippines means that there is fertile ground for conflict and judgment. Even apart from religion, every culture has their own traditions, old ways that will conflict with the new, ways of life that we have grown used to which color our appreciation of anything novel. Within these contexts, tolerance can act as a diffuser – it is an acknowledgment that we live in a society where not everyone is like us, one where my right to hold my own beliefs is contingent on not forcing my beliefs on others. While we may think that we have reasons to object to the beliefs or actions of others, these are offset by a higher order of reasons to exercise tolerance, to live and let live.

There are, however, matters which we consider completely unacceptable. These can be actions that are so universally repudiated that we cannot consider our abhorrence of them to be in any way subjective: slavery, rape, exploitation, tyranny, genocide and similarly heinous acts. In these instances, when we have an opportunity to stop these injustices from occurring or to take a stand against them, to choose instead to tolerate them would be the opposite of virtue. This would lead to the so-called “paradox of tolerance” where tolerance without limits, tolerance which allowed the intolerant, would eventually lead to an intolerant society.

So where do we draw the line? How do we know what to tolerate and what to take a stand against?

There’s no easy answer to that question. But the best place to start, as usual, is with ourselves, and a willingness to examine our own beliefs. Which of these are based on something objective, or universal? Which of these are based on opinion, or habit, or a lack of knowledge about other alternatives? We should learn to recognize the signs of personal bias and prejudice. Oftentimes, when what we are judging is not an action but instead an identity – someone’s race, nationality, sex or sexual preference – then we are in the realm of bias. The remedy for that is not to tolerate but to educate – to learn that what we initially find to be objectionable has no solid foundation. Bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia… these must be corrected rather than tolerated.

And to give people the opportunity for that, to learn and grow and become better people, it is imperative that the State take the lead in constructing an environment where both tolerance and education are possible. This is why it is so important to safeguard the constitutional principles such as the separation of Church and State, and the freedom of thought, of belief and of expression, as well as the institutions that protect these principles. In a situation where there are grounds for conflict between its people based on deeply held beliefs, it is the State that must guarantee the peace and ensure that there is space for reasoned debate and impassioned argument, while minimizing the danger that these can get violently out of hand.

But while the State can impose a stance of tolerance, it is up to the people to go beyond it. And go beyond it we should. As the philosopher and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote: “Tolerance should be a temporary attitude only; it must lead to recognition.”

What lies beyond mere tolerance of differences? A recognition of the humanity of others, a respect for their free and autonomous rights to find their own way of living, when such does not imperil the way of life of the rest. It not only acknowledges differences but celebrates them, and the way humanity is made richer through its diversity.

Tolerance is an important first step in finding solidarity with our fellow human beings. Yet to achieve that solidarity, we must be careful to choose wisely what we will steadfastly tolerate… and what we will fight to change.

UNITED NATIONS
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