Archive for March 4th, 2012

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Trying to Rectify the Names: “Tolerance”

Before I write another comment which would actually exceed the reasonable length of a comment, I’ll turn it into a post.

Neru Kaneah, in the context of Deutsche Welle‘s Chinese department, its management, recent related judicial events and Chinese press coverage on them, expressed a hope that Germany would prove to be an open society that allows dissent. If it did, Chinese press coverage could be proven wrong:

[…] then the Communists loose quite a bit of face. If not, it helps them to argue that westeners are a lot less tolerant than they pretend to be.

Tolerance, it seems to me, is one of the most frequently-used words in the web of relationships, and most people who use the term seem to believe that tolerance should go without saying. That depends on the definition.

According to Wikipedia,

Tolerance or toleration is the practice of permitting a thing of which one disapproves, such as social, ethnic, sexual, or religious practices.

There are still many other definitions, sometimes several in one place.

You might disapprove of people eating meat, for example. A more controversial test of tolerance could be Schechitah. The way religious fundamentalists educate their children could be another – even if it involves no illegal means.

Tolerance is often seen as the solution to problems that stem from diversity. But there can be problems that stem from certain notions of tolerance itself. The problem is that frequently, when people urge others to be “tolerant”, they actually mean that others should welcome their ideas, or ways of life. But if I welcome  all of them, I don’t really need to be tolerant any more. And if I ask (or try to tell) others to welcome or appreciate my own ideas or my way of life, I don’t need other peoples’ tolerance any more. People must be free to disapprove of me, or of what I do, as long as they don’t mess with my legal or human rights. In fact, appreciation loses its meaning and its value if it  becomes a duty.

Teaching Tolerance (, a project in Alabama, does see a problem in the term:

“Tolerance” is surely an imperfect term, yet the English language offers no single word that embraces the broad range of skills we need to live together peacefully.

To make sense of it all the same, they quote UNESCO‘s Declaration on the Principles of Tolerance – I’m quoting from the document itself, because it is somewhat different from the quote on The UNESCO document says what tolerance is, in its view:

Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.

And it says what tolerance, in its view, is not:

Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In no circumstance can it be used to justify infringements of these fundamental values. Tolerance is to be exercised by individuals, groups and States.

My views seem to be closer to the UNESCO document, than to – but I’m taking issue with acceptance and appreciation. It’s respect for people which makes you tolerate their habits and values. But nobody can tell you to accept or appreciate what others do. So long as human rights aren’t infringed on, however, you may have to tolerate what others do – even if you disapprove.

I heard a description of tolerance some seventeen years ago – its one I can subscribe to:

Pluralism and tolerance are certainly important, and I do not want to do without them. But if they are to function, they need to be realistic and honest, that’s to say, one needs to know and understand the other’s position, and one needs a position of one’s own to actually tolerate the other’s. Ethical relativism  leads to an absence of positions, not to tolerance.

Pluralität und Toleranz sind gewiß wichtige Dinge, auf die ich unter keinen Umständen verzichten möchte. Wenn sie aber funktionieren sollen, müssen sie realistisch und ehrlich sein, und das heißt: man muß einerseits die Positionen des anderen kennen und verstehen und man muß andererseits einen eigenen Standpunkt haben, um den des anderen überhaupt tolerieren zu können. Werterelativismus allein führt zur Standpunktlosigkeit und nicht zur Toleranz.

That was former German president Roman Herzog, lauding Annemarie Schimmel, an orientalist, in May 1995.

Back to what makes me write this post in the first place. I don’t really care if the Communists lose or gain face, in the Deutsche-Welle context. This should be a process that defines the society we want to live in, not a society the Chinese Communist Party in particular would condone or appreciate. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m less tolerant than what I pretend to be. The first reason for me to blog the events at Deutsche Welle was curiosity. By now, I’m quite convinced that Wang Fengbo and Zhu Hong were wronged by Deutsche Welle. That’s what defines my stance. And what we need above all, if we care about the freedom of the press in general, or freedom of the airwaves in particular, is public attention. Unfortunately, Deutsche Welle hardly counts as a mainstream broadcaster, in Germany.

Either way, it won’t be German tolerance or intolerance which defines the matter. For one, Deutsche Welle isn’t Germany, even if they refer to themselves as “the Voice of Germany”. And more importantly, it has yet to be decided if journalists at Deutsche Welle are under the protection of the freedom of the airwaves. I hope that Mr. Wang’s and Mrs. Zhu’s cases will make it to the Constitutional Court – it seems to be the appropriate place to decide their cases.

When talking about tolerance, I should also try to put myself into other peoples’ place. Let me try. If I had ever worked at Deutsche Welle’s Chinese department – say, some five, ten, or twenty years ago -, I’m wondering if I would have been free to work in accordance with my values, or if I would have been labelled racist, cold-war minded, or intolerant. I have no evidence to either a Yes or a No to that question. But my hunches seem to tell me that life at Deutsche Welle, at certain times in the past, wouldn’t have been easy for people like me, either.

Tolerance, in its true sense, must be practical, too.

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