Ever since the explosion of sad news – and some with happy ending – about the refugees and displaced people from conflict zones happened, people from everywhere have been saying and writing all sorts of things. There is so much to think and feel about this subject that I understand how overwhelming it can be, but I think in this discussion we are forgetting certain fundamental principles; principles that allow us to call ourselves a world civilization, as opposed to just a bunch of herds coexisting (hardly) next to each other. Which is why I think it’s very important that we revise some common concepts before we continue the discussion (though there shouldn’t even be a discussion in the first place), starting with one of the most used words around this topic: tolerance.
Some of us like to think of ourselves as good people. We tolerate those who we consider different to us, those who live differently, who think differently and look differently; we accept the fact that they have the right to live on this planet, too. We are good because we have no problem accepting those who have different views of reality, as long as they don’t disrupt our lives, and if somehow we have to interact with them – say, we work with them – we tolerate them but for the sake of harmony and peace, certain topics should not be discussed and certain behaviors should not exposed; and if they are, we put up with them and we say good on us, we are tolerating their existence.
To be honest, I don’t see the merit there whatsoever. In fact, “tolerating” someone under those terms is irrelevant and condescending. First of all, we don’t need to practice tolerance towards people or ideas that have no consequence in our lives – let’s say because they are in a far land or because they’re not relevant to our environment –, that’s not tolerance, that’s just us not being able to do anything about them, or choosing to ignore them, that’s us being indifferent. Second of all, it doesn’t require practicing tolerance towards people who we consider different to us but want the same things that we do and act like we do, at least in front of us; in other words, someone “different” who is trying to mold into our society. In this case, the fact that we “let” them live and try to fit into our society – as in, we are not doing anything to stop them from having the same opportunities we were just lucky to be born with, in a land that doesn’t belong to anyone but Earth– doesn’t mean we are practicing tolerance, it means we are barely being decent human beings.
Moreover, it does not qualify as tolerance if we are just putting up with someone, or with their ideas. Putting up with a person in front of them but then mock or degrade them when they are not around is not tolerance, it’s hypocrisy. To believe that differences in races, cultures or religious beliefs are legitimate grounds for divisions in the world, and potentially discrimination, but that we must bear with these differences in order to be able to call ourselves “good people”, is not tolerance; in fact, this is intolerable. To consider someone inferior or an enemy and “tolerate” them is intolerable. If tolerance is not carried out with sincerity then it’s not tolerance. It must come from a place of sincerity and respect, because to practice tolerance means to genuinely accept – and in some cases even celebrate – ideas and ways of life from people who are different and that do not want to be like us.
Tolerance implies accepting opposite ideas; ideas that are based on principles and convictions. Since these types of ideas could potentially be changed, we are being tolerant only when we choose to not do anything to change them in someone else. Tolerance only plays a role when we can, potentially, do something about changing someone’s mind – or behavior – but we choose not to for the sake of freedom of conscience. In a deeper level, tolerance is when something is against our own interest but we accept it for the sake of someone else.
Note that expressing disagreement with something doesn’t mean one is being intolerant; in fact, this is part of holding a conversation – as long as we are sure we understand that thing we are disagreeing with – and it is ok to express a different perspective on something if what we want is to find the truth, as opposed to just prove that we are right.
Nonetheless, tolerance is just one of the first steps in our journey to achieving genuine respect and love; it’s the bare minimum we should exercise as the civilized educated people that we consider ourselves to be. We are only talking about tolerance now because, as a world civilization, we are still quite far from practicing universal love. Tolerance is a first step and not the ultimate goal because its basis is the acknowledgment that something is unequal to us, that something is incongruent with our personal understanding of reality and in order to survive in peace with others we must tolerate it; it relies on differences, it implies that something abnormal for us must be treated as tolerable – this is why we often confuse this word with bearable, they don’t mean the same and we should not use them interchangeably. Tolerance springs out of love, out of respect, out of a genuine appreciation for diversity, with openness of mind. So ultimately, we want to replace intolerance not with tolerance, but with mutual respect, forbearance and love.
We want to tolerate based on the understanding that freedom of conscience allows widening of ideas, we tolerate for the love of truth, for the love of learning, for the love of expanding and changing our minds. Tolerance comes from the fact that we accept that we cannot know it all, that we cannot grasp the whole truth. Thus tolerance is rooted in humility, from accepting our weakness to grasp the whole truth. And it is our individual moral obligation to search for truth and uphold it; but this cannot be achieved by attaching to what we already know, or think we know, while we dismiss opposed ideas. When we hold on too much to an idea we become inflexible and intolerant.
Being firm in our principles is one thing but being set in our ways in terms of paradigms and standards can actually be detrimental for our evolution as civilization. What we want is to constantly learn more, refine our thoughts and understanding of reality – visible and invisible. We don’t want to be conformed with our understanding of something at any point, understandings can be constantly improved. Our paradigms can change and they must change, they must improve, we must change our minds constantly as we learn new views. As individuals and as societies, we don’t strive because of “firm beliefs” or being short sighted; we strive for continuously expanding our knowledge. And a genuine respect and love for different people, firstly manifested through tolerance, is the key for success in that matter.
However, this brings up the question of if universal love is the purpose, does this mean we must be tolerant with the intolerant? Where does justice play a role? If we are tolerant to everyone including the dangerous behaviors then our society would be wiped out. Of course one must stand in the face of injustice, for the sake of tolerance and universal love one must not be indulgent with injustice. The purpose of tolerance, we need to remember, is unity. Being tolerant with divisive behaviors such as racism, religious discrimination and sexism is counterproductive for tolerance. We would be perpetuating an unjust society. However, it’s these behaviors what we must not tolerate, not the perpetrator. But bearing in mind that it is one thing to find offense in what others say or do, and another thing is to feel aversion for what they are. We regard some actions as despicable but not the person. We may not accept what others say or do but we accept what they are: humans that can learn, like all of us. Everyone can be educated under the standard of justice – that is, to be committed to truth as oppose to lies or misconceptions – and kindness. Let’s not forget that just like we are tolerating someone, someone else is tolerating us.