What does tolerance mean post-9/11?
by Byron Bland
For tolerance to survive, politics must create livelihoods that make enduring the disappointment that living together imposes worthwhile
Since 9/11, the practice of tolerance has come increasingly under assault. The old adage "tolerance is tolerant of everything but intolerance", provides little help in combating this onslaught. If intolerance means treating people in ways that humiliate or demean them, then tolerance clearly cannot tolerate this behaviour. The attack on tolerance, though, comes from another quarter and concerns not so much intolerance per se as the expanding inventory of things that are considered intolerable. Because it is permissible to be intolerant of things that are intolerable, we need some practical ways to identify the unbearable. If we do not know what is legitimately intolerable, we cannot know what tolerance requires.
In our globalised world, we often do not fully understand the impact the unfamiliar on matters that are of great importance to us. As a result, we are increasingly confused about what we can actually afford to accept. Faced with uncertainty, we have a tendency to restrict tolerance to realms to which we are simply indifferent. Although, if it pertains only to matters that have no bearing on us, then we become resistant to ideas and behaviours that are simply disquieting or bewildering but not truly menacing. Tolerance as indifference has no real virtue and leaves us impoverished rather than enriched.
In seeking to expand the notion beyond indifference, another quandary arises. If tolerance also requires some positive sentiment, then it should perhaps be limited to the things that we respect. In this way, we can be sure that it protects meaning and value in our lives. Too often though, respect becomes synonymous with comfort and when it does - tolerance loses its significance. If we accept only what we respect, are we really practicing tolerance in any meaningful way?
Tolerance is elusive because it involves principles that pull in opposing directions. First, it means the freedom to be different, and this freedom must rest upon something more than indifference. Second, it must entail a positive regard toward differences, and this positive regard must include but also surpass simple respect. Both principles are necessary but work in opposite directions. The practice suffers if either is allowed to dominate. Tolerance must balance the tension between these dichotomous principles. The best place to explore this tension is to take a deeper look at the notion of respect.
Long ago, Aristotle talked about friendship or philia politikç as the glue that held cities together. Political friendship was a willingness to regard another with the same attitude as one had toward oneself and arose as leaders turned their attention from their individual concerns to those of the commonwealth. More recently, Hannah Arendt has suggested that the modern notion of respect better captures this idea. Like Aristotle, she thought respect was more than either the benefits we receive from the relationship or the pleasure we receive from being in someone's presence. Instead, respect entails a reciprocal good-will unconnected with intimacy or even closeness. In her view, individual characteristics or personal attraction play little or no role. This kind of respect creates space for people who fundamentally differ to live together.
Nurturing respect in today's world is difficult because respect has traditionally operated only within well-defined boundaries that are currently breaking down. Carl Schmitt, the influential German philosopher of jurisprudence, thought that identification of enemies established the boundaries necessary for a sense of political unity and purpose. In this sense, an enemy denotes the outer limit of respect because we cannot genuinely respect those who endanger our well-being. Today, under conditions of profound change and rising uncertainty, boundaries are often drawn well short of the kind of menacing violence that warrants the designation of an enemy. Almost any difference can indicate opposition that might jeopardise our future well-being.
In such a climate of heightened suspicion, it is not difficult to see how the mere recognition of difference can give way to disrespect. No doubt, the exercise of principled good-will as advocated by Aristotle and Arendt is a good antidote to the spread of unwarranted disrespect. Moreover, active goodwill may even expand the boundaries of respect beyond the confines of its customary limits. Nevertheless, goodwill by itself is not enough to extend tolerance beyond the restricted domain of what is familiar and comfortable.
We need trust to create tolerance in the face of today's global challenges. It may seem, at first glance, that we have jumped from the frying pan into the fire when replacing respect, which is difficult enough to create, with trust, which is even more difficult. While respect and trust are obviously connected, trust, at least in the way I conceive it, is more fundamental and also easier to address on a practical level. Trust can, no doubt, mean many things, but the most useful definition with regard to tolerance involves the notion of encapsulated interests.
Russell Hardin argues that trust, rather than a feeling or an emotion, is instead the judgment that our interests are aligned in such a way that, as you pursue your interests, you will further mine as well. In other words, my interests are encapsulated within yours and vice versa. I can trust you because I know that your goals and aspirations will advance mine as well. Our goals and aspirations are not perfectly aligned so that all conflicts of interest are eliminated, but they are intertwined in ways that allow for congruent interests to develop.
In practical terms, when I tolerate someone, I open my future wellbeing to their influence. I implicitly give them some measure of control over my life and livelihood. Because our individual welfare is, in large measure, collectively generated, we are interconnected at a profound level. Such acceptance entails allowing someone a place in the community in which my wellbeing is grounded. Beyond indifference and more than respect, tolerance requires that I grant you some influence on my life.
This approach becomes practical when it takes form in a vision of a shared future. Put concretely, it means that all members of a society feel that they will have a bearable future even if another group's goals and aspirations are fully realised. The future I envision may be substantially different from what another group envisions, and their outlook may involve things that would be hard for me to accept. Still, if their future came about, I would still have a future that I could live with. In other words, my goals and aspirations are encapsulated within theirs so that a tolerable future for both of us becomes a realistic possibility. Tolerance can tolerate disagreement, but it cannot survive distrust.
A vision of a shared future identifies a possible domain of mutually bearable futures for the various groups that comprise a society. It does not require the groups to agree initially on a common vision. Producing such agreement is the work of politics and involves give and take from all sides. For tolerance to survive, politics must create livelihoods that make enduring the disappointment and injustices that living together imposes worthwhile.
Byron Bland is a senior consultant at the Centre on International Conflict at Stanford University, in the US