Tolerance is not indifference: International Day of Tolerance

Yesterday was the UN’s International Day for Tolerance. But what does tolerance mean? It may be the case that our immediate and instinctive definitions need some rethinking. The Guardian‘s Madeleine Bunting draws attention to a new study of tolerance by Frank Furedi:

The problem is that tolerance – understood in its classical liberal sense as a virtue essential to freedom – has been hijacked and bankrupted, argues Furedi. Dragged into the politicisation of identity, tolerance has become a form of “polite etiquette”. Where once it was about the tolerance of individuals and their opinions, it has now been “redeployed to deal with group conflicts”. Once it was about opening the mind to competing beliefs, now it is about one that affirms different groups. Along this slippery path, much of the original importance of tolerance has been distorted or lost.

Tolerance has segued into meanings of nonjudgmentalism, recognition, acceptance, even implicitly, affirmation and respect. It has frequently slipped into a vague indifference – “you do what you like” type attitude to the people you live amongst.

The definition of tolerance and how it is practised is further complicated by competing perspectives. Bunting goes on:

Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim thinker, loathes the contemporary rhetoric of tolerance as the “intellectual charity” of the powerful, part of the vocabulary of “cultural domination”. He says it is grudging and patronising. A left critique argues that tolerance is a discourse of “depoliticisation”. And the critiques from the right argue that tolerance has fatally weakened European identity; David Cameron even blamed the riots on tolerance. The right associates it with its twin evil, relativism.

The UN’s Declaration of Principles of Tolerance necessarily discusses the broadest notions of tolerance, between states and as a legal responsibility, in its discussion of what tolerance means and doesn’t mean:

Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.

The Declaration of Principles also say what tolerance is not:

Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In no circumstance can it be used to justify infringements of these fundamental values. Tolerance is to be exercised by individuals, groups and States.

What appears important is that tolerance calls for engagement, not inaction. It arises as a result of contact and communication, even where disagreement exists. Returning to Bunting’s analysis, she suggests tolerance should not be characterised by indifference and withdrawal but means instead: ‘putting up with views and opinions you may deeply disagree with; [and] does not require abdicating judgement’. Echoing the UN’s declaration, we have a social responsibility to be tolerant, as Bunting suggests:

Judging is about using, to our best abilities our reasoning and empathy, to discriminate and discern; not bothering is a form of, literally, antisocial behaviour, a withdrawal from our responsibilities and obligations to other people.

That ‘not bothering’ is an unwillingness to engage with those who believe in ideas and attitudes that are different from ours. In everyday day use, tolerance is a term which has become difficult to grasp and more difficult to perform. Eventually, its meaning has slipped in many areas into a kind of ‘nonjudgemental indifference’. What Bunting’s article and the UN’s International Day of Tolerance invite us to do is rethink the idea, and consider how far it appears that tolerance calls for a more committed and considered engagement with those with whom we may share fundamental differences.

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