Telling Voices Friday Review

Tolerance as the creed


Susan Mendus of York University talks about something we all need to learn: tolerance, “…standardly toleration is defined as allowing, permitting or refraining from interfering with something which you believe to be morally wrong. So, if you behave in a way which I think is morally bad, but I don’t prevent you from doing the thing which I think is wrong, that counts as tolerating. Of course underwriting all of that must also be the possibility that I could stop you if I wanted to. So I need to have the power to stop you, and I need to refrain from stopping you, and I need to think that what you’re doing is wrong."

Asserting that tolerance should be at the heart of politics, Mendus says, “We have to live together whilst we have different ideas about what’s the best way to live. That’s what lies at the heart of the problem of toleration. I suppose there are two questions that arise which are then absolutely crucial. One is, ‘Why might we be tolerant?’ As a society, or as a government, why might a government tolerate homosexuality, atheism, Catholicism? These are all real examples of cases where toleration has been very, very vexed. So, why might a government be tolerant? And secondly, ‘What are the limits of that toleration?’ because, however tolerant a government, it’s not going to be tolerant of everything, and we wouldn’t want it to be tolerant of everything. I take it that we wouldn’t want the government to be tolerant of rapists, or murderers, or terrorism. So toleration has got to have its limits. Then the second question is ‘What are those limits?... It’s one of the things that poses problems in any society that’s multicultural, multiracial, multi-faith, where people with very different understandings of the relationship between politics and religion must nevertheless try to live together in something that looks like harmony.”

How can one draw a single measure of tolerance for such varied issues? Mendus says, “I think there are really two questions there. One is a question about whether the answer will be different for different cases. Another is a question about the range of cases that there’ll be. Will the answer be different in different cases? “

Mendus says that in the West most questions of tolerance have centered around religion and Locke had said, “…fire and the sword are the weapons available to the State, to politics, and fire and the sword will not serve to change your mind. So it’s irrational for the magistrate, it’s irrational for politicians, to try to compel people to believe or to persecute those who don’t believe the right thing, because persecuting people isn’t going to change their mind. Another thought which is connected is that in any case trying to dabble with or interfere with religious belief is not the business of politics.“ Mendus however does remember that Locke was not so sympathetic or understanding vis-a-vis atheists or Catholics!

After Locke, the most famous advocate of liberalism, says Mendus, Scott, “… is John Rawls who claims that political philosophy depends on the society it addresses. Modern society is characterised by what Rawls calls the fact of pluralism. And this pluralism is not going to go away. Rawls thinks that it’s not the case that we will all converge on a single truth about religion in an ideal world. Rawls thinks plurality is the natural outcome of the operation of reason under conditions of freedom. So he thinks it’s to be celebrated that when we all think about religion, let’s say, we’ll come up with different answers, and we shouldn’t regret the fact that in the world there are lots of people who think very differently from us. “

Mendus Scott turns the argument into a conundrum when she says, “…certain virtues are compatible with certain ways of life, but not with all good ways of life, not with all virtues. And so if you want artistic splendour, and you want the Renaissance, you have to have people who are grand and proud and arrogant, and profligate and overweening (In Florence there were hundreds of years of bloodshed and murder, and we had the Renaissance. In Switzerland, 300 years of peace and tranquility, and what did that deliver? The Cuckoo Clock),” adds Mendus as a nota bene.

However, even with the promise of a Renaissance, intolerance cannot be acceptable, says Mendus Scott and adds, “Tolerance is a moral belief that we owe it to others to allow them to lead their lives in their own way.”

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 7:27:10 AM |

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