12 March 2006

Tolerance - Intolerance

Tolerance – Intolerance

It is very easy for things to get out of hand: without even trying or wanting to. Take the following case.

A topic was voted to discuss during the philosophy meeting! However, maybe due to some distraction or inattention the coordinator seriously believed that the topic voted was “hypocrisy” and not tolerance. For those interested in the forensic evidence of the case, hypocrisy was written on the notes sheet as a topic immediately after tolerance. A curious fact is that hypocrisy did not have any recordable votes, but as future events would prove this did not reflect the real interest in the topic.

On the day of the meeting the error was soon discovered to the disbelief of all those present. The rational solution was to vote again confirming the topic. But in the confusion of the moment the topic that was confirmed was “intolerance” rather than tolerance. The immediate fallout of this was that other topics did not get a fair chance to a vote. And strictly speaking, the original topic has now been changed to tolerance-intolerance.

It is evident from this example that when we lose control of things we just don’t know what might happen. However, what might happen can easily have a negative consequence on others. In our case, we did not keep to our plans which might have inconvenienced some people and certainly inconvenienced those who came prepared to suggest a new topic for the next meeting. In other words, even with all the good will in the world and all the understanding tolerance, things can easily go wrong.

There is an important issue about tolerance, which is well discussed by John Rawls in his book, A Theory of Justice. The question is simple: should we be tolerant with those who are not tolerant with us? The reasonable bottom line, which Rawls also takes, is that we should be tolerant as long as the intolerance is not a threat to our self preservation. But why should being tolerant result is the realistic possibility of being a threat to our self preservation? Surely this is a paradox since we believe that virtues should be good for us and tolerance is certainly a top tier virtue. This Aristotelian idea of tolerance being a virtue, is not something new in human thought nor I would say, exclusive to our culture.

Moreover, those who actually have to decide whether to be tolerant or not, this paradox is also a dilemma. Should we take the risk and allow those who are not tolerant to live among us? Or should we play safe and restrict the activities of intolerant people in advance? Once again, taking the middle road is the best option. Not too virtuous that we become a walk over, and not too intolerant that we become the centre of collective hatred.

On the other hand, we also have to remember that taking risks can sometimes pay dividends, especially if they are reasonable and calculated. So, as long as both the tolerant and the intolerant play within the same set of risk taking parameters or boundaries there is a good chance of both living in harmony with each other. In other word, the tolerant takes a risk, maybe not to be harassed by the intolerant, and the intolerant is give some free space to operate.

However, there seems to be no binding reason why those who are not members of these groups, the groups who set the boundaries, why they should operate within these boundaries. For example, there is no reason why non smokers should tolerate smoking in pubs when they were not responsible for settings the boundaries between smokers and drinkers. I’m thinking on the lines that landlords allowed smoking because smokers bought more beer; and of course, smokers implicitly did buy more beer; maybe even because they were the majority drinkers in the pub. However, since non smokers can buy as much beer as smokers, why should they tolerate smoking? Especially that now they could easily make up the majority of people in the pub.

We can take this line of questioning into all sorts of situations. For example, if there are people who feel that their land has been invaded, why should they tolerate what they consider an invader or their practices? Why should a modern society tolerate the injustices of the past? In fact, why should we tolerate the intolerant, irrespective of what we did in the past? From the smokers’ example above, I seem to be suggesting that the majority should always have its way. Or more seriously, that might is right. Of course, we don’t really want to go the way of might, but then again, fewer people want smoking in pubs these days.

Usually, at this point, philosophers and non-philosophers alike would invoke the golden rule to tame this paradox or dilemma. Now, as we all know, there are probably more versions of the golden rule then there are ice cream flavours at a typical seaside resort in the Mediterranean. So, “do unto others what you would like done to you,” is a good a flavour as any.

What this is telling us is that if we want others to be tolerant with us, we should be tolerant with others. But as someone might legitimately point out, who cares what others want to do to us. All we’re interested in is what we want to do. In other words, the golden rule only applies if we want to be bound by it. But this is not the only serious objection to the golden rule we can think of.

Probably, the reason why the golden rule has such chequered past is because it assumes that we have a right, of some sort, to tell others what to do. Where do we get the right from, to: do unto others? Who gave us this right to tell others what to do let alone do to others what we would like others do to us? Of course, some might say that this “do unto others” is only metaphorical, only a mental exercise. Sure, but we’re still starting from the wrong premise. Whether, we assume this right as physical or metaphorical, I am not convinced that we do have such a right to even consider: do unto others what you would like done to you. The golden rule is a non starter because we cannot even get past the starting point.

So, if we cannot tell others what to do and others cannot tell us what to do, whether real or metaphorical, are we left with everyone doing what they want? Not necessarily, of course. There are many things which we do that does not interfere with others: learning, writing, resting and so on. Secondly, doing what we want does not mean that we can do it. And then of course, the more people we manage to annoy, the fewer the chance we might have to do what we want. However, if we're too busy looking after ourselves and trying not to get in the way of others, then surely we would have a better chance of doing what is probably the right thing to do, at least for us.

As we also know, however, cooperation is better than confrontation. If that is the case, why does confrontation seem to be the norm? Why does, for example, an open competitive market function better and is more efficient than say a controlled economy? Theoretically, at least, a controlled economy, is supposed to be based on cooperation, equitable share of resources and to benefit everyone without exception. That's the theory, but of course anything can be made to look good in theory. An open capitalist economy is, in theory, based on confrontation and self interest, with disregard to the weak and the unfortunate. At least this is the theory, but as we know, in a theory everything can be made to look bad.

Which ever way we care to look at the world, a high degree of cooperation is required for any system to function. So being selfish or being a thug does not imply that one does not cooperate. This is an important point because it seems to suggest that cooperation is more fundamental and basic to our existence. Which is all for the best, since having dismissed the golden rule we might feel somewhat philosophically naked and exposed. We, therefore, ought to be tolerant not because we want others to be tolerant with us, but because tolerance is a natural form of cooperation, in the same way as altruism is a natural form of cooperation. Which might explain why a competitive system might have some virtues after all. It is not so much the survival of the fittest, but the survival of those who cooperate. Whether it is a thieves’ honour or a legally biding contract, they both succeed when the relevant parties cooperate.

Of course, corruption, cheating and thuggery, do have a certain short term advantage, if no one else is doing the same. But if every one is cheating each other, then any material advantage would be lost or diluted. The issue should not be seen as whether to cheat or not to cheat. But rather, given that cheating, or whatever, is not a natural form of cooperation, at which point does cheating stop being an advantage? And at which point does it start to be a serious detriment to our survival? At least in our society, big cases of corruption and such like still make the front page news. Maybe in our society we have learnt from our history that cheating and such negative behaviour is not acceptable because it can lead to serious consequences. If making a mistake about a topic for discussion can lead to negative consequences, how serious would be the consequences of cheating or corruption?

Could it be that the norm in real life is actually cooperation. Could it be that our fascination with bad news is due to some inbuilt instinct to alert us about possible dangerous situations and as a source of shared experience? In other words, our interest in murder cases, for example, is not that we have some morbid and perverted interest in death and crime. But rather, we have an inbuilt curiosity and inquisitive instinct to know about bad news and learn from it. If there was a murder in our neighbourhood, we are more likely to be interested in it in order to protect ourselves much better. Maybe this explains why although domestic violence is one of the more common causes of crime , we do not seem to get into a frenzied panic at the news of a death as a result of domestic crime. Compare this with a shoot out outside a pub or a small terrorist bomb. The reason is simple, we don't feel threatened with someone else’s domestic violence, but we do with a terrorist bomb.

The word tolerance does have the idea that we are giving permission to others to do what they want to do. As if, that is, we had some authority or power over others. Indeed, intolerance does have the idea of rejecting such authority or power, and by implication it also carries the idea of negativity. Intolerance is never a virtue, even if we are intolerant about abusive behaviour or unreasonable political ideologies.

But what exactly is tolerance? From example, it makes no sense to talk about being tolerant with someone we have no control or authority over. For example, my neighbours can be very tolerant with their children's unruly behaviour. But we cannot say that we're are being tolerant with their children. We have no authority over them, and our options are quite limited. We either accept the situation or report the family to the relevant authorities. Of course, there is always the option of leaving the neighbourhood. We can only be tolerant with those who we are cooperating with, but how far can we extend this? Should we be tolerant with a dictator who we have no links with? And since we have not links with such a dictator, is it even our business to be or not to be tolerant?

This probably is the reason why it makes more sense to always try and build relationships and dialogues with one’s opponents. Paradoxically, by trying to start a dialogue with our enemy, not only does it give us a chance, by taking the risk, of solving our problems, but if they are not solved, we have a legitimate reason for taking self defence action. Of course, some people see talking with one’s enemies as a weakness. It can only be a weakness if we are afraid of our enemy, because maybe we haven’t prepared ourselves.

Look at it this way, the intolerant need not exploit our weaknesses to succeed, they only have to use their strength. Maybe, they just don't care about us because they don't feel threatened by us. Threatened, that is, in all possible manners: physical, legal, moral or social. History, once again, is littered with the corpses of people who became victims of this unfortunate reasoning. The relevant people in Nazi Germany thought that they could get a way with invading Europe because they did not feel that Europe was a threat to them at the time. And the lack of military preparation by the British in the 1930’s gave any attempts to dialogue no meaning or at least not enough for the relevant authorities in Germany to feel threatened.

Which brings us back to how easily things can get out of hand. Being tolerant or intolerant is not a question of just moral virtue, there is something more basic than that, as basic as cooperation. But cooperation is as strong as the way we interpret the information we receive from others or by simply confirming the information we think we have about others. Sometimes, it is as simple as looking once again at one’s notes.

Take care


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