Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The vagueness of "Tolerance"

The vehement, sometimes acrimonious debates that accompanied the drafting of the Vatican II declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, yielded an exceptionally precise and carefully worded document. Noteworthy in the 5,700-word declaration is the absence of even a single reference to religious "tolerance" or "toleration." The choice of religious "freedom" or "liberty" as the proper category for discussion and the exclusion of "tolerance" flies in the face of the societal trend to deal with church-state issues in terms of religious tolerance.

As one notable example, along with the 40th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, 2005 also marked the tenth anniversary of the United Nations' "Year for Tolerance." Back in early 1995, Federico Mayor, director-general of UNESCO, made the following remarks in New York:

Fighting intolerance takes both state action and individual responsibility. Governments must adhere to the international standards for human rights, must ban and punish hate crimes and discrimination against all vulnerable groups, must ensure equal access to justice and equal opportunity for all. Individuals must become tolerance teachers within their own families and communities. We must get to know our neighbors and the cultures and the religions that surround us in order to achieve an appreciation for diversity. Education for tolerance is the best investment we can make in our own future security.

If the umbrella of tolerance necessarily covers hate-crime legislation and "appreciation for diversity," with everything that has come to signify, these remarks may well give pause. In modern discourse tolerance is never just tolerance; and even if it were, it would hardly present the best category for describing attitudes toward religion. Rather, we would do well to heed the wisdom of the council fathers regarding the true meaning of religious freedom.

Why Tolerance Isn't Enough

Religion is a good to be embraced and defended-not an evil to be put up with. No one speaks of tolerating chocolate pudding or a spring walk in the park. By speaking of religious "tolerance," we make religion an unfortunate fact to be borne-like noisy neighbors and crowded buses-not a blessing to be celebrated.

Our modern ideas of religious tolerance sprang from the European Enlightenment. A central tenet of this movement was the notion of progress, understood as the overcoming of the ignorance of superstition and religion to usher in the age of reason and science. In the words of Voltaire, "Philosophy, the sister of religion, has disarmed the hands that superstition had so long stained with blood; and the human mind, awakening from its intoxication, is amazed at the excesses into which fanaticism had led it."

Since religion was the primary cause of conflict and war, the argument went, peace could only be achieved through a lessening of people's passion for religion and commitment to specific doctrines. As Voltaire wrote in his Treatise on Toleration, "The less we have of dogma, the less dispute; the less we have of dispute, the less misery." Toward this stated end, many mechanisms were put into play, among them the selection of proper words to modify people's views on religion.

The language of tolerance was first proposed to describe the attitude that confessional states, such as Anglican England and Catholic France, should adopt toward Christians of other persuasions (though no mention was made of tolerance for non-Christian faiths). The assumption was that the state had recognized a certain confession as "true" and put up with other practices and beliefs as a concession to those in error. This led, however, to the employment of tolerance language toward religion. The philosophes would downplay or even ridicule religion in the firm belief that it would soon disappear altogether. Thus, separation of church and state becomes separation of public life and religious belief. Religion was excluded from public conversation and relegated strictly to the intimacy of home and chapel. Religious tolerance is a myth, but a myth imposed by an anti-religious intellectual elite.

This "tolerant" mentality is especially problematic when applied in non-confessional countries-such as the United States-where an attitude of tolerance is not that of the state religion toward unsanctioned creeds, but of a non-confessional secular state toward religion itself. Language of religious toleration of Christianity in Saudi Arabia would be a marked improvement over present conditions, and consistent with a confessional Muslim state's belief that Christianity is a false religion. In a non-confessional state, such language is more pernicious.

Dignitatis Humanae, on the contrary, taught that religion is a human good to be promoted, not an evil to be tolerated. While government should not presume to command religious acts, it should "take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor." Religious practice forms part of the common good of society and should be encouraged rather than marginalized.

Tolerance Versus Toleration

Along with the conceptual error of tolerating the good of religion, the meaning of tolerance itself has evolved still further. The United Nations' Declaration of Principles on Tolerance states outright that tolerance is a virtue and defines it as "respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human."

This definition mirrors that of the American Heritage College Dictionary, which states that tolerance is "a fair and permissive attitude toward those whose race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry. A fair and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own."

If tolerance is a virtue, it is a decidedly modern one. It appears in none of the classical treatments of the virtues: not in Plato, not in Seneca, not even in Aristotle's extensive list of the virtues of the good citizen in his Nichomachean Ethics. Indulgence of evil, in the absence of an overriding reason for doing so, has never been considered virtuous. Even today, indiscriminate tolerance would not be allowed. A public official tolerant of child abuse or tax evasion would hardly be considered a virtuous official.

The closer one examines tolerance and tries to apply it across the board, the more obvious it becomes that it's simply insufficient as a principle to govern society. Even if it were possible to achieve total tolerance, it would be exceedingly undesirable and counterproductive to do so. In his play Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw wrote, "We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime."

Moreover, as a virtue, tolerance seems to have distanced itself so far from its etymological roots as to have become another word altogether. Thus the virtue of "tolerance" no longer implies the act of "toleration," but rather a general attitude of permissiveness and openness to diversity. A tolerant person will not tolerate all things, but only those things considered tolerable by the reigning cultural milieu. Tolerance therefore now has two radically incompatible meanings that create space for serious misunderstandings and abuse.

Tolerance and intolerance have no objective referent, but rather can be applied arbitrarily. Thus the accusation of intolerance has become a weapon against those whose standards for tolerance differ from one's own, and our criteria for tolerance depend on our subjective convictions or prejudices. Thus Voltaire was able to defend the actions of the Roman Empire in persecuting Christians and blamed the Christians themselves for their martyrdom because they failed to keep their religion to themselves. He avers that the death of Christians was a consequence of their own intolerance toward Rome, and not the other way around. Such sophistry is part and parcel of many of today's debates on tolerance, and flows from the ambivalence of the term.

The affair grows even muddier when the "acceptance of diversity," present in modern definitions of tolerance, is thrown into the mix. The UN Declaration of Principles on Tolerance incorporates a prior statement from the UN Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice, which states: "All individuals and groups have the right to be different." Taken at face value, that is a ridiculous claim. Suicide bombing is "different," as are genocide and sadomasochism. To say that one person has a right to be bad, simply because another happens to be good, is the ludicrous logic of diversity entitlement.

The sloppiness of these definitions is unworthy of the lawyers who drafted them and cannot but lead to the suspicion that such ambiguity is intentional. This vagueness allows tolerance to be applied selectively-to race, sexual orientation, or religious conviction-while other areas-such as smoking, recycling, or animal experimentation-stand safely outside the purview of mandatory diversity.

Of course, this double standard is hardly new. John Locke himself, in the midst of his impassioned appeal for religious toleration, notes that toleration does not extend to Catholics, Muslims, or atheists. "To worship one's God in a Catholic rite in a Protestant country," he writes, "amounts to constructive subversion." In the end, the question for everyone necessarily becomes not, "Shall I be tolerant or intolerant?" but rather, "What shall I tolerate and what shall I not tolerate?"

More here


A council has sparked outrage after allegedly ordering a school to make sure a teacher who stood as a candidate for the British National Party only teaches white pupils. Teachers claim Clive Jones has been kept away from ethnic minority children once his ties with the far-right group became known. Union leaders have written to Derby City Council accusing it of playing into the hands of the party which has been widely condemned for its extremist views. The father-of-three teaches science to troubled teenagers at a 165-pupil unit for youngsters expelled from local schools. Around 10 per cent are black or Asian. But his teacher colleagues at Derby City Pupil Referral Unit were horrified when he stood as a BNP candidate in a council by-election last month. Local officials from the NASUWT union expressed concerns to the council that his support for the party views raised questions about his suitability to teach. The union claims Mr Jones was shortly afterwards told to take a different class - with only white children.

NASUWT general secretary, Chris Keates, said: "The information we received, and it is from an extremely reliable source, was that as a result of the contact with the council he was moved to teach a group that had only got white pupils. "Derby City Council deny that was the case, but after my letter had been received he was moved to his original class. The action to move him to a white-only class was completely the wrong response as it feeds prejudice and bigotry and plays into the philosophy of that organisation."

Mr Jones, of Tutbury, Burton-on-Trent, scraped 291 votes in a by-election for East Staffordshire Borough Council on June 29. Labour held the seat after its candidate polled 581. There is no legal barrier to a member of any political party becoming a teacher.

In a letter to the council voicing concerns about his candidacy, Mrs Keates said: "I am advised that when this matter was drawn to the attention of the local authority the response was apparently to move the teacher concerned to teaching only white pupils. "If this information is correct then I must raise the most serious concerns of the NASUWT about the response of the local authority to this matter which would appear to serve only to provide the opportunity for the person concerned to promote prejudice and bigotry and does nothing to protect pupils from exposure to the vile agenda of this organisation". Mrs Keates said the council should instead be exploring possible legal challenges to the teacher's continued employment. She revealed the union itself was taking legal advice on whether members can vote on whether to refuse to work with Mr Jones. She has also written to Education Secretary Alan Johnson demanding tougher curbs on BNP members working in schools. She said: "This teacher has made public his affiliations and support for the objects and aims of the BNP clear. Those who subscribe to a racist and fascist agenda have no place in the teaching profession."

The council - which has denied moving Mr Jones to a white only class - said he was conducting his duties "appropriately". "As Mr Jones's employer, the council must take account of the fact that the BNP is a registered political party," said Councillor Sara Bolton. "The council's current view is that there are no grounds for taking any action against Mr Jones."

A BNP spokesman said: "If that was the decision, it wasn't his decision and it was a lot of rubbish. No BNP member who is a teacher would behave inappropriately towards a pupil."


Australia: Tribal law 'no excuse for sex abuse'

Amazing that political correctness makes it necessary to assert that

Customary law will no longer be used as an excuse for sexual abuse and violence in indigenous communities under an agreement struck at yesterday's talks. John Howard and state leaders rejected an attempt by ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope to scuttle a statement on customary law on the grounds that it sent the wrong message on reconciliation. The push sparked a withering response from Peter Beattie during private talks, with the Queensland premier rolling his eyes at the suggestion and later urging the leaders to "stop the nonsense" on the issue.

Premiers have also signed off on a proposal to establish a joint intelligence taskforce to fight violence and child abuse under the supervision of the Australian Crime Commission. Truancy will be targeted under an agreement to collect and publish school attendance rates of indigenous children. The agreement follows the announcement of a $130million package to tackle law and order, reached at a recent inter-governmental summit on violence and child abuse.

COAG yesterday agreed to a statement that "no customary law or cultural practice excuses, justifies, authorises, requires or lessens the seriousness of violence or sexual abuse". The statement said: "All jurisdictions agree that their laws will reflect this, if necessary by future amendment."

However, Mr Stanhope rejected claims that customary law was being abused. "It is very important in the context of advancing reconciliation and issues in relation to indigenous disadvantage that we not seek to identify aspects of Aboriginal culture and customary law as incidences, or sources of some of the behaviours," he said. "It is important that we separate the causes of indigenous disadvantage from issues such as customary law, cultural background. The ACT has a particular position in relation to the role and place in sentencing courts to take account of issues such as cultural background."

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Beattie said it was clear states and territories needed to act. "Of course they do. I mean, there's too much abuse," he said. "We've got to stop all the nonsense that goes on about it. We don't have a problem with customary law in Queensland. Frankly, you know there are enough indigenous leaders who are taking a stand on this and we want to support them."

NSW Premier Morris Iemma also supported moves to address violence in indigenous communities. "I support the statement that we made about violence and abuse," Mr Iemma said.

However, Nothern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin said the positive contribution made by many Aboriginal people should not be forgotten. "Yes, it happens. But can I also say that one of the things that Aboriginal Territorians have said to me over the last few months is why can't Australia also recognise the incredible things that are being done, the people whose commitment is everyday for change," she said. "There are thousands of Aboriginal Australians who are really working hard for that change."

Law Council president Tim Bugg said statistics did not support claims that indigenous offenders were treated more leniently than other offenders.


No comments: