Saturday, November 26, 2005

Is tolerance enough?

Tolerance is an interesting word. At first it seems to be a very positive word which is all about what is necessary for different people to get along together. After all, if society lacks tolerance, it punishes being different in any visible way. Doesn’t it? Well, the thing is that when I think about it I do not tolerate homosexuals. What do I mean? Much the same thing as I mean when I say that I do not tolerate Indian food, world music or, to give perhaps the clearest example, when I say that I do not tolerate my daughter. I do not tolerate my daughter because I love her. I don’t have to tolerate her since I find nothing in her that calls for me to be tolerant. Similarly I am very fond of world music and Indian food. Now, some homosexuals, as individual people, I may find annoying or interesting or fun to be around, but this has little to do with their homosexuality and everything with their specific personalities. So, I do not tolerate homosexuals. Nor do I tolerate feminists or any of a number of other groups that one hears calls for tolerating. The thing is that ‘tolerance’ is a two-edged sword. It means that you do not like something but that you will not do anything about that. To ‘tolerate’ something means to wish that it didn’t exist but recognising that, in the circumstances, it is best to do nothing about it. But circumstances change and what is tolerated one moment may be persecuted the next. So, tolerance isn’t really enough. Still, there will always be things that we can only tolerate just as there will always be things that other people will only tolerate. In that context a solidly pluralist society is an absolute necessity.

What about things that shouldn’t be tolerated? The anodyne answer would be to say that we should be tolerant towards everyone, but that doesn’t really cut it. No society can accept everything if it is to safeguard the wellbeing of its members as well as its own continuation. I don’t think that people feel we should tolerate it if parents kill or maim their children - a number of cases of such child abuse having recently been publicised where I live. The hard question becomes what ought to be tolerated. And, just as I observed in my previous post, there is no easy answer. And giving the wrong answer will mean that people will get hurt. Indeed, even giving the right answer will probably lead to some suffering.

So, like I said, ‘tolerance’ is an interesting word – neither as anodyne nor as straightforward as we might wish it to be.


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