the irrational importance of tolerance.

I’ve grown up with the privilege of watching two parents flourish in a loving relationship, and it’s been something I’ve been fascinated by. There must be some set of commandments forged in stone that people who have been together for decades follow to the letter, in order to avoid the relationship either imploding after a few high-octane years or slowly rotting over time. By my mum’s own admission, the sole reason that it has lasted so long is through my father’s tolerance of pretty much anything and everything that life has thrown at them so far. It’s a wonderful yet frustrating quality that I have inherited, and whilst it is inbuilt in the way that I have always operated, it is becoming increasingly evident that the world around me is becoming less tolerant than I once pictured it to be.

The state of tolerance

Putting aside the build up and fallout of the 2016 US Presidential campaign and Brexit, much more recent events have caused the melting pot to spill over. Whether it be the LGBT teaching row in Birmingham schools, Alabama’s abortion ban or the confusing demonetisation of conservative YouTube channels, a crossroads has clearly been reached. Liberalism supposedly celebrates everyone’s right to believe what they want and to interact with those who we are not immediately accustomed to with compassion, but the mixing of different, often contrasting cultures has generated palpable friction. After all, if you create junctions within communities, you’re bound to have collisions.

Multiculturalism and pluralism are the holy grail, and society has made important strides in reaching such important values. But those principles can only exist by adopting tolerance. But as recent events have shown, it’s a principle that is being increasingly deserted by many.

The principle of tolerance

While most people believe in the principle of tolerance, it is in itself a paradox. Being truly tolerant stipulates that you can’t pick and choose what you are tolerant of. You have to be tolerant of all things, even intolerant people spouting intolerance. And therein lies the problem. How unfair is that? Am I expected to just happily tolerate extremist individuals who want to persecute other members of my faith, especially in the current climate where Christians are the single most persecuted religious group in the world, and after the terrible attacks on church-goers in Sri Lanka in April this year? Am I expected to blindly tolerate individuals who preach division and warped nationalism, who are stirring up distrust and suspicion towards minority groups?

In fact, it would be a lot more rational to practice intolerance to avoid these very dilemmas. It would be much simpler to explicitly tolerate things that I agree with and to reject ideals and people that I oppose. Sounds good, right?

Unfortunately, life is not binary, far from it. The state of play is much more complex, and while it is much easier to distinguish some ideas as good or bad (still a fairly simplistic outlook that ignores any room for nuance), it’s a lot harder to categorise people as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But most importantly, history tells us that adopting intolerance as our philosophy only breeds intolerance in a never-ending spiral towards mutually-assured destruction. Religious crusades, witch hunts and genocides are all evidence of what happens to us when we deem that the values and ideas that we hold are superior to those that are held by others. What this tells us is that although being tolerant is entirely irrational and difficult in the face of those who are determined to spread intolerance, it is actually the most moral and practical thing to do.

The philosophy of tolerance

But there is still uncertainly on how we apply tolerance today. There is visibly a clash between the right to freedom of speech and the de-platforming and exile of those we perceive to be antithetical to the celebrated ideals of liberalism. Karl Popper and John Rawls, two profound philosophers of the 20th Century, both sought to remedy this clash and to find an answer.

Popper’s formula for tolerance was that:

“In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance. Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right even to suppress them, for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to anything as deceptive as rational argument, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, exactly as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping; or as we should consider incitement to the revival of the slave trade.

The intolerance that Popper was identifying was a clear one. It’s not ideas and people with whom we disagree with or abhor that we should suppress; it’s when such ideals and individuals pose a serious and immediate violent threat to others or the very foundations of society. Rawls echoed a very similar idea, whereby if the intolerant are intent on destroying a society, that society has the right to suspend tolerance in order to preserve itself. Essentially, we give intolerance a chance until it gives us a reason to suspend it.

It’s a reasonable and just philosophy that I feel has the potential to be applied practically to benefit everyone. As long as an individual is not directly inciting violence against members of a particular faith, I can tolerate them for their views which are at odds with mine. But the internet has changed the landscape and hence the application of this philosophy. Because there is no longer a need for an idea to be propagated through ‘old media’ and public appearances, where it can be now funnelled through sites like Reddit and 4Chan, the suppression of these ideas simply don’t work. Restricting Tommy Robinson’s YouTube channel and banning Milo Yiannopoulous from Facebook has done absolutely nothing in reducing the spread of their rhetoric, and whilst it may send a strong message as to what is acceptable in a liberal society, it will only strengthen the siege mentality within their supporters and drive these ideas underground temporarily.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if I heard less of Robinson and Milo, but history has taught us that bad ideas never vanish from the face of society through banning and de-platforming. When Ben Shapiro was made to look like an imbecile in an interview with Andrew Neil, his views on abortion, the Middle East and the Obama administration fell apart and looked ridiculous in the cold light of day. And although he may still be posting content, the mainstream media revealed that he wasn’t as self-assured and untouchable as many of his fans believed him to be, all because Neil chose to tolerate him. Only through decisively rebutting and rejecting dangerous ideas in public debate do the intolerant begin to dwindle in number.

Guide to tolerating the intolerant

I have tried in my own life to be more tolerant in the face of opinions in direct opposition to mine, and there’s a number of things that can be done in order to deal with intolerable, dangerous ideas in civil society (not simply opinions you disagree with) :

1) Ignore it

Giving oxygen to what you believe are inflammatory, unfounded positions may actually give it a life and inadvertently contribute to its spreading.

2) Respond to it articulately

This could be directly countering someone by reasonably debating their misinformation or half-truths or staging a peaceful protest. If you’re confident that your view is correct, then banning them is the last thing you would want – take an active role in making their position fall apart and leave them with no leg to stand on.

3) Humour

There’s nothing worse than to reduce nefarious ideas and authoritarian figures to parody that we can all mock and reduce to nothing more than caricatures not worth taking seriously.

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