Monday, February 10, 2014

The Limits of Tolerance

The concept of tolerance has always bothered me a little. First of all, it sounds a little condescending: I don’t like your behaviour, but I will tolerate it. By saying that we tolerate something we are, at the same time, making it clear that we disapprove of it. The nuances of language aside, there are other issues that we should consider.

First, we need to recognize that ‘tolerance’ is a fairly recent, western, and probably middle class idea. Yet we assume that the concept is a universal value. Or have attempted to elevate it to such a position. It is almost inevitable and certainly understandable that those who adhere to a particular value argue that it is universal. It is all but implied in the concept of ‘value’. Yet historically and culturally there are many belief systems that do not enshrine tolerance as a value, or even consider it desirable. Even if that were not the case, it is certainly possible to conceive of a system of belief in which it were. Let’s consider a hypothetical religious belief system in which a group of people believe themselves to be the recipients of a divine revelation demanding that all people worship the sun. Worship of the sun is the only way to achieve salvation. As long as any one living person does not worship the sun, all souls are in jeopardy. Anyone who does not worship the sun is seen as an enemy of the sun, forfeiting not only their own salvation, but threatening also the salvation of sun-worshippers. Tolerance within such a system of belief is unthinkable. Tolerance, under such a system, would be a sin.

It is a very modern, western, middle class notion that all religions will preach love, peace and tolerance. Many have not. Many do not. This is a corollary of our equally modern, western, middle class notion that ‘all religions are the same’. They are not. They never have been.

Even if we genuinely do believe that tolerance is a universal value, we cannot expect others to automatically share that belief.

The other issue with tolerance is: Tolerance of what? Another way of asking this is: Are there limits to tolerance? Whether we consciously acknowledge this or not, it seems clear that there are behaviours and belief systems that even the most tolerant among us do not feel any obligation to tolerate. I could choose any number of issues here. For example, there may be those who believe that it is required of them by their sun-god to destroy non-believers, even if it means destroying themselves in the process. In this way, they may believe, they obtain special favour in the eyes of their deity. It is no use those outside this belief system arguing that this is contrary to some other aspect of this religious system. That may be true. But those who believe it, nevertheless believe it. Most of us, perhaps, would argue that such behaviour should not be tolerated. Should the belief system that leads to such behaviour be tolerated? That is a more difficult question. There are many, many, many more examples where a belief system results in behaviour and practices that we, in the west, will not (perhaps justifiably) tolerate.

A proposed limitation on the concept of tolerance is the balancing concept of ‘harm’. The argument is that we should tolerate any behaviour that does not bring harm (to others? to oneself?). This sounds alright, as far as it goes, but questions inevitably arise. What constitutes harm? What degree of harm is required before it becomes intolerable?  Is all harm harmful in the long term? Spanking may be considered harmful for a child in the short term, at least. But there will be those who would argue that it is only slightly harmful in the short term but enormously beneficial in the long term. Our sun worshippers may believe that women can only be saved by serving as slaves to their husbands. This may be considered harmful to women by outsiders, but to insiders, including the women themselves, this may be regarded as eternally beneficial. It is a slippery slope to argue that the women themselves only believe this because they have been culturally indoctrinated. This may be true; but this argument can be made of any belief. There is something very arrogant about the outsider telling the insider that they don’t really believe something.

The concept of tolerance is not as straightforward as we might at first believe. It most certainly does not stand for ‘anything goes’. Nor does it relieve us of the responsibility of making ethical judgements in each case that confronts us. We may get some of those judgements right; we may get many wrong. Unfortunately, there are no easy short cuts in ethics. The concept of tolerance certainly does not provide one.

1 comment:

  1. I suppose this is where our brains really come in, eh? Deciphering where to exercise tolerance, and when to put our foot down. That's a battle I fight every day with my kids, and while I don't hold other children to the same standard, mine are expected to behave according to a specific ideal.