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.


7 Comments to “Trying to Rectify the Names: “Tolerance””

  1. JR,

    I agree with you – of course – that tolerance is most certainly not the same thing as “appreciation” or “acceptance” (much though elements of the Left act as though they are merely synonyms – and only when it suits them). Tolerance is the refusal to countenance forcible intervention to stop other people behaving in ways in which one disapproves.

    Bearing that in mind, perhaps you can understand why I disagree with this sentence…

    It’s respect for people which makes you tolerate their habits and values.

    Not in my case – in my case it is respect not for the people themselves, but for the omnilateral nature of rights which arises from the proscription on the initiatory use of force. I tolerate other people doing things of which I disapprove not because I respect them (I may or may not – often not), but because other people are not my personal property, and nor are they the property of the larger society on behalf of which the State claims to act in its crude attempts at “social engineering”. As long as they are not violating the negative liberty of myself and other people (the “natural crimes” and derivatives thereof), then I am content to tolerate whatever else they might choose to do within the purview of their own liberty.

    What should not be tolerated are those who are themselves intolerant of how other people choose to spend their freedom.



  2. I might rephrase the line in my post: it’s respect for people which makes me tolerate their habits and values. I respect them for being people, but I may not respect what they do or say. This seems to suggest that I see certain rights – human rights for sure – as inseparable attributes of people. That said, there are certainly people whom I wouldn’t tell that I respect them, because they may get that wrong – just as they could get it wrong if I said that I tolerate their ways or values.
    Any concept with the potential of being universally practical will be a target for manipulation, with varying success.


  3. “This seems to suggest that I see certain rights – human rights for sure – as inseparable attributes of people.”

    Let’s make sure I understand what you’re saying here: you use the term “human rights” without any sort of specifier to refer only to a particular set of “human rights” and not to others, so I assume you mean all “human rights”.

    As indicated my use of inverted commas, I see a problem with this which is that the positive rights listed in the UDHR seem to be logically in conflict with the negative rights.

    Take the case of article 4 of the UDHR: the right not to be held in slavery or servitude (and the abolishment of such “in all its forms”). Although no definition is given for slavery and servitude, I would suggest that the defining characteristic is compulsion: forcing someone to perform any given task against their will. That characteristic does not depend on degree (this is a serious problem: can you define “slavery” merely by degree? Any cut-off point would seem to be arbitrary).

    Yet in the later articles, those prescribing positive rights such as education, this commandment against slavery and servitude (to use the simple, common-sense definition of compulsion) is openly breached – for if someone has a positive right to receive education (or any other scarce good or service), then someone else must necessarily provide it, and by compulsion if necessary (as a matter of fact, article 26 explicitly states that elementary education shall be compulsory).

    The point I am making here is much broader in scope than the mere provision of elementary schools, but amounts to a rejection of much of the UDHR. It seems to me … outrageous… to regard such things as compulsory education as “inseperable attributes of people”. Such a view would necessarily imply, for example, that homeschooling is some sort of crime through the denial of a positive right. More broadly it implies that anyone who wants as little to do with the State as possible is to be regarded with the sort of suspicion previously reserved for actual criminality.

    Now I understand why the more “activist” elements of the Left talk incessantly about “human rights” – it is a political tool for the expansion of State power – but I don’t see how any sensible person can – for even a second – take the UDHR seriously, as you seem to do.


  4. Let’s make sure I understand what you’re saying here

    You seem to understand me correctly, Mike. The UDHR isn’t perfect, in many cases, it leaves leeway for weighting (otherwise, they wouldn’t have been adopted even in 1948, when the UN was much smaller than now), but it’s a maximum common denominator. I will object to certain articles or protocols if I can see that mainly lead to abuse – but I can’t see what your case against article 4 or 26 would be.

    I can’t say that I’d understand you correctly yet – but to try to understand what you mean, let me take compulsory elementary education as a sample. I haven’t read from article 26 that it necessarily bans homeschooling, but to simplify things, schooling outside the family is compulsory in Germany, and I’m not objecting to that.

    Who should decide if an individual kid should get elementary education or not, in your view?


  5. “ leaves leeway for weighting… I will object to certain articles or protocols if I can see that mainly lead to abuse…”

    By what principles would you identify “abuse”? I object to the “positive rights” as abuse because they necessitate the violation of the non-aggression principle, and therefore the right described in article 4. For sure, compulsory education is not quite the same thing as cotton-picking slaves in the ante-bellum U.S., but it turns on precisely the same principle: coercion. To reject the principle of slavery necessarily means rejecting compulsory education.

    Understand: I am not saying that children should not receive some sort of education, only that things like education should be run on a voluntary basis and parents should not be forced into sending their children to government run schools. There is absolutely no need for this.


  6. For clarification, Mike: parents in my country are free to send their children to government-run schools, to schools run by non-governmental organizations, or to denominational schools – some charge tuition fees, some don’t. However, denominational schools are obliged to include views of the world into their curricula which may not correspond to their own, when it comes to evolution, for example.

    Home schooling instead of school outside families is no legal option here, and I still can’t see why that should be abuse. Should a child’s education, in your view, be based on the volition of parents, of children, or both? Who is to decide if parents and children hold different views – if a child wants to be schooled along with kids from the neighborhood, or if a child doesn’t want to get any education at all, for example? How do you want to avoid what you call “violations” (I tend to call that weighting, unless I can see what you mean)?


  7. “However, denominational schools are obliged to include views of the world into their curricula which may not correspond to their own, when it comes to evolution, for example.”

    Your italicized presumption is entirely misplaced, since I’m neither religious nor a critic of evolution (Dawkins’ Extended Phenotype is my ID card here – and I’ve read and understood plenty of Nietzsche too). I’m not some cartoon you may have seen in the Guardian, JR.

    “Home schooling instead of school outside families is no legal option here, and I still can’t see why that should be abuse.”

    It (the illegality of homeschooling) is an “abuse” because it presupposes the use of political power to force people to send their kids to a school. To anticipate the objection about strange religious cults homeschooling their kids to believe in the cult of Cuthulu, Zoroastrianism or anti-semitic conspiracy theories, I should say that discouraging that sort of thing through civil pressure based on voluntary cooperation is the proper task of self-governing citizens who do not throw such responsibilities out into the trash-can of the State.

    “Should a child’s education, in your view, be based on the volition of parents, of children, or both?”

    Both. Children are not property to be subjected to intellectual censorship, but neither are they in a position to know their own best interests.

    “Who is to decide if parents and children hold different views – if a child wants to be schooled along with kids from the neighborhood…”

    If it were me I would want to try to come to some accommodation with my kids. If I could not find alternative venues for them to interact socially with other kids of a similar age (e.g. because there are no other home-schooling parents because home-schooling is illegal), then I would want to think about letting them attend a school on a part time basis (but that’s illegal).

    “…or if a child doesn’t want to get any education at all…”

    If it came to that, then I’m the one with the grocery money: finish reading chapter 1 before dinner is ready, or you go hungry.

    “How do you want to avoid what you call “violations”…”

    By replacing Statist arrangements with voluntary cooperation.


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