Rob Wheeler thinks about.... Tolerance

Tolerance is a very misunderstood virtue. It is often confused with indifference; thought to entail moral relativism; to consist simply of a warm feeling; to involve an insoluble paradox and to amount to no more than good manners. I want to argue that all these are mistakes.

When we tolerate a practice, belief, attitude or institution in society we are tacitly asserting that the object of our tolerance is objectionable in some way. However, we believe that tolerating it results in a better outcome for us all than if we were to suppress the offensive object. Furthermore, authentic toleration has to be voluntary. If it is enforced then we are simply suffering or enduring the object. On the other hand, if we were merely indifferent to the object, having no strong feelings one way or the other, then we could not be said to tolerate it at all. Nevertheless, it may be that in some cases the cultivation of an attitude of indifference is the most virtuous course. For instance suppose someone had a deeply felt antagonism for members of other races, believing that all but the northern white races are inferior. It is possible that she could develop a tolerant practice in the sense that she scrupulously treated everyone, regardless of race, in a fair and non-discriminatory way. But would we praise such a person for their "tolerance"? Indeed not. The original racism is a form of intolerance and should be eradicated rather than adding a layer of tolerance to negate it. The correct course is that she should become indifferent to race rather than be tolerant or intolerant of it.

Some people believe that to be tolerant you have to adopt an attitude of moral relativism, believing that there are no universal moral truths or principles. The relativist believes that the "truth" of a moral judgement is relative to the framework (normally a culture or subculture) within which it is made. As the relativist denies a privileged position to any moral belief, including her own, this should, on the face of it, guarantee that everyone tolerates everyone else. Unfortunately, relativism is logically self-defeating when examined closely. Tolerance itself is a substantive moral prescription: one that the relativist believes everyone should adopt. But if his relativism is correct then the prescription can only apply to his own perspective (or culture). If someone from another culture does not believe in tolerance then the relativist can say nothing to him. The relativist is like someone who is sitting in a tree and saws off the branch he is sitting on! In the end all the relativist can do is adopt an attitude of indifference or resort to force. An appeal to the other person's tolerance is impossible, for any reasons he gives to the other will be relevant only from his own, personal, perspective.

The so-called "paradox of tolerance" lies in the fact that in tolerating what we find objectionable we appear to be committing ourselves to tolerating intolerance! But if the intolerant are successful in gaining political power though our championing of their civil freedoms despite our objections to them, then we could end up with an intolerant society. Tolerance thereby appears to be self defeating! However, this apparent contradiction can be easily resolved by realising that tolerance is not just a feeling or attitude but a substantive moral principle that we expect everyone in an open, liberal society to sign up to. Tolerance requires reciprocity and so it is quite consistent to coerce those who want to opt out and deny the moral norm, for failure to do so would undermine that very norm.

In polite society the notion of tolerance has nowadays become somewhat confused with civility and good manners. While these are good in themselves they are not values that are necessarily entailed by tolerance. Looking back to the early years of Quakerism, one of the paragons of tolerant organisations in history, we find that the founder George Fox was not above riding a horse into an Anglican church and declaring the congregation damned to hell! His concept of tolerance was more robust than ours. It meant that you did not use violent coercion or persecution against those with whom you disagreed. But it did not rule out outspoken criticism and it did not require that you were polite to them. I think that in these days of multicultural Britain, when we often tip-toe around cultural and religious differences, we have something to learn from old GF. A tolerant society does not insulate you from having your believes and sensibilities questioned and criticised. It simply defends your own right to enter into critical discussion with others and not to suffer violence or coercion when you do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic!

I think it's important to take into account roles and responsibilities besides any power differential between the prospective tolerator and the intended recipient. A parent or teacher would have a clear role/responsibility to exert moral influence over a child or student should the child or student express wrong views.

The case of Big Brother's Jade Goody and her racist behaviour is interesting. Clearly her lack of education, limited experience and the probable prejudiced mores that socialised her upbringing mitigate but do not excuse her offence. But a better educated, more privileged person (who does not have the role/responsibility of being her parent or teacher) should arguably make a distinction between condemning her views and behaviour while not condemning Jade per se. Conditional tolerance! To do otherwise could be an abuse of power, however righteous.

Sometimes NFA (no further action) might be the wisest response to unacceptable views.

For example I have an elderly relative who has extremely predudiced views on a whole range of topics. I feel it is pointless to challenge many of her outrageous views because (a) there is no possibility of influencing her as I am a person to whom she attributes no authority whatsoever to know anything better than her and (b) her age-related vulnerability means that to challenge her would only have a destructive outcome. A third very important consideration is that she is not in a position to cause significant harm to others because of her disgraceful prejudices.

Of course it's equally important not to encourage or seem to concur with these views (something in itself to which she is not entirely insensitive). There are times when even challenging wrong views might constitute an indulgence and, or, afford the oxygen of publicity to the offence thereby adding to its impact rather than quashing it.

It might be argued that the approach outlined does not constitute tolerance as such but I believe that I'm very consciously tolerant when spending long periods of time with her (this at some cost to me in that keeping the lid on my anger and remaining patient takes a definite toll).

Perhaps genuine tolerance does carry some kind of personal cost in order to have meaning and value.

Many years ago when I worked at the headquarters of Kent Social Services, I produce a report for the Social Services Committee on pre-school provision which received universal praise from senior managers. They refused however to submit this report in order to accommodate the prevailing prejudices of members that the place of women is in the home looking after their husbands and children therefore no day care should be provided that would undermine this natural order. To the managers it was political pragmatism. I still think they were wrong. It would have been fair enough to carefully consider tactics likely to achieve the best outcome but to opt out of the issue altogether was cowardly and the wrong kind of 'tolerance'!

Pam Wheeler