Tolerating Sectarianism

The March issue of Index on Censorship is celebrating 40 years of exposing censorship and giving voiced to the censored. This takes the form of a series of articles attempting to analyse, and provide some context, to the changing censorship landscape.

Inevitably, one of these articles takes a long – and interesting – look at the Muhammed Cartoons Controversy. In it, Kenan Malik summarises some of the views of Fleming Rose – the editor of Jyllands-Posten at the time – thusly:

Tolerance, Rose told me, should be ‘about the ability to be exposed, and to accept things you don’t like’, the ability ‘to live with what you find distasteful. What you don’t like, what you abhor’. But the concept has, in recent years, been ‘turned on its head’. Tolerance, he explains, ‘is no longer about the ability to tolerate things for which we do not care, but more about the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may not care to hear. Jyllands-Posten was criticised for being intolerant. That suggests tolerance is something demanded of th one who speaks, or the one who draws the cartoon, or writes the novel, rather than something demanded of the one who listens, or looks at the cartoon or reads the novel. That’s why I say that tolerance has been turned on its head’.

Tolerance, in other words, used to mean the acceptance of diversity and difference. Today it has come to mean the very opposite: the refusal to accept diversity and difference, the insistence that others abide my views of what is acceptable and unacceptable. Once every group insists that other groups have to respect its boundaries then every social conversation has to take place across a barbed wire fence of ‘tolerance’.

This is not something I’d previously considered but, anecdotally, it did strike me as being very true.

Traditionally, the concept of tolerance has embodied a strong element of tit for tat – I accept that you might say something I find offensive and in return you accept that I might say something you find offensive. We don’t have to agree with each other, we don’t even need to pretend to respect each other. We simply have to recognise that it is in both our interests to not start imposing endless restrictions on each other.

There has probably always been a minority that has been unable or unwilling to understand this reciprocity. These are the people who noisily demand special privileges while seeking to deny rights to others. I don’t think that these people are in any way representative of the communities which they claim to represent and, traditionally, most of us have simply ignored them.

What has changed is that the media have become more willing to pander to this aggressively reactionary minority, and politicians have become more willing to respond to them. This works to the detriment of us all and leads towards the situation in which these self-appointed spokesmen engage in an endless cycle of seeking to suppress any opinions that don’t suit their agendas.

A truly tolerant society is one in which we recognise that we don’t all agree and that fundamental disagreements are inevitable. Trying to wish away these disagreements does not lead to greater tolerance – it leads to rampant sectarianism – and that, ultimately, will benefit no-one.

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