Tolerance vs. Acceptance


I’m having another word crisis, of sorts.

I continue to stand by my assertion that blasphemy isn’t a word that has any practical use or value in a secular society, so it is, therefore, one that we needn’t use any longer.

There have been a lot of editorials/opinion pieces/proclamations in the press since #jesuischarlie trended in the aftermath of the terror attack in Paris- and the aftermath of the aftermath. Il Papa weighed in- and got it completely wrong. As have a lot of people who are speaking out against the cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo.

I’ve said before (in response to some of the wonderful comments I received on the ant-blasphemy post) that the humour- and even the satirical value- of the magazine is pretty much lost on me. It’s not my type of thing. I tend to be more thoughtful, less in-your-face about my satire/political commentary.

But. My impression of the humour- or lack thereof- in magazines like Charlie Hebdo– is not the point.

Personal preference isn’t remotely the point. Not even a little bit. Except in the fact that I can choose not to purchase said magazine if the images offend.

In free, democratic and secular societies we get to make such choices. And we get to challenge the ideas of those who set themselves against the values of our free, democratic and secular societies.

Failure to do so allows for the flourishing of things like totalitarianism. And for the ascension and maintenance of despotic regimes- political or religious- that seek to hold their power and control over the lives and freedoms of everyone else. That those living under such conditions continue to support that type of status quo… well, that’s more of a head-scratcher. We can talk about social conditioning, about Stockholm Syndrome, about not knowing anything else. We can take into account things like anomie and the inability of certain people to integrate into the norms of society. Those are some of the things we need to be looking into, certainly.

What it really comes down to is our idiotic human need to divide ourselves into two groups. Us and Them.

This particular idiocy may not have originated in the Big Book o’ Western Myths (since the concept pre-dates biblical times), but it certainly got a leg-up when one, then another, group of people began insisting on their chosenness- and their separation from and better-than-ness of others.

So. The newest words in question that are causing me trouble?

1) Tolerance. Right off the bat let me say that I’ve always felt that there was a definite underpinning of patronizing apology in the way in which this word is generally used. We ‘tolerate’ those things we must– even if we find them tiresome or uncomfortable. For example- I ‘tolerate’ the occasional Smiths song – when one is heard at a party- or the Monster Music my SO so enjoys- all in the name of friendship and/or fair-shakes in the compromising-department.

‘Tolerating’ someone’s beliefs? It’s so colonial. And politically correct. Like a pat on the head. Which isn’t something that most adults- whether or not they have given much thought and/or insight into those beliefs- are likely to appreciate all that much.

It’s irritating as hell, is what it is. I’d prefer that you tell me straight out that you think I’m completely wrong in my assessment of something than to passively ‘tolerate’ my opinion- and my right to hold said opinion. It’s such a reductive word. Perhaps it hasn’t always been so- but, honestly, I rarely hear it used without that distinctive note of begrudging obligation creeping in.

Most of the time, it makes my skin crawl. There is a perception of power inherent in the term- if one ‘grants’ that something is to be ‘tolerated’, the one doing the tolerating seems to have more authority than the one being tolerated. Stephen Colbert, in his satirical persona, ‘tolerates’ those of other races- by saying he ‘doesn’t see colour’.

Ick. Don’t like it. Never have. It’s one of those words that has ceased to mean what best intentions, once upon a time might have meant it to mean.

2) Acceptance. This one is more my style. There’s an evenness to the playing field when someone accepts what you are saying. Or doing. Or believing. There’s less resignation and imposed adherence to a perceived moral imperative.

One of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors has a line that describes the meeting of two old friends- a man and his dog, who had been separated by lifetimes- and, as they played together, wrestling in the snow, they offered little growls of reunion and “acceptance- as of like-to-like”. Much better word.

Acceptance suggests acknowledgment and thought given to opinions offered- even if that opinion is not, necessarily, shared. I, for example, can generally accept that others have beliefs that differ from my own, and that they participate in the sharing and/or furtherance of those beliefs in appropriate forums. Like in churches. Or synagogues. Or mosques. Or temples. Or in their own homes and family groups.

I can accept that these beliefs can live in concert with mine- and with the values of of our larger society- if they do not impact our educational, judiciary or political system. As long as they are not forced upon me- or anyone else- I can accept that they exist and that people find value and comfort and solace in them. As long as they are not used- overtly or covertly- to influence public policy or office, go ahead and keep your beliefs sacred in your own, individual sphere of existence.

I cannot- and will not, and SHOULD not- accept beliefs that DO, in any way, impact those things that impact our secular system of governance and community engagement.

Religions, it has to be remembered, are ideas. Some may argue that they are amalgams of good ideas. Others may disagree. We can, and should, demonstrate sensitivity and acceptance of the fact that one religion or another might well have things to say, or practices to enact, or things to ban and call blasphemous, with which we might disagree.

When those words or practices or calls of blasphemy run contrary to our larger freedoms as secular societies? Yeah no. That we don’t tolerate. We SHOULD NOT tolerate.

If a group happens to believe that polygamy and forced marriage of girls under the age of 15 is okay, we have larger, societal markers that dispute that. We have the legal recourse- and moral obligation- to put a stop to such things if we are made aware of them.

If an extreme segment of Islam calls for the murder of writers and artists over a perceived slight against the personification of an idea, we need be charged with ensuring that the same legality and obligation are upheld.

We must enact our righteous responsibility for the legitimate and logical protection of people– not ideas, actual human beings. There is no ‘fine line’ between free speech and the offence of ‘sensibilities’ that are associated with ideas. Especially if those ideas are patently and demonstrably wrong-footed and anachronistic. Some things may, admittedly, be relative. Violence and abuse of one another in the name of ideologies based in divisiveness are not.

It is not enough to condemn the actions of those who act out in purported defense of these ideas- whether the defense is supported by one or by many. If we do not actively demonstrate that these ideas must not be valued above our humanity and inherent connection to one another, then the terrorists and the power mongers will keep on winning.

That the terrorists and the right-wing power mongers are seeking the dissolution of consensus and direction from those of us who claim to be progressive is a given. Both extremes are manipulating our emotions and reactions to the suggested triumph of one idea over another. If we don’t cease the liberal knee-jerk ‘tolerance’ of all things and work toward true acceptance (and with it, understanding)- across the board and across the world- we will continue down the path of playing to the extremes- both those who claim to be Islamist and those who seek to eradicate all those who subscribe to or find connection with Islamic beliefs and practices.

Tolerance has become an ‘apologetic’ word. We tend to use it uniformly and unthinkingly to describe liberal feelings towards those things that we may have been less than nice about in the past. Things like race. Or difference in religion. Or gender.

We have misused it to such an extent that it is damaging us- and interfering with our real need to understand one another. If we manage to convince ourselves that we ‘tolerate’ something, we tend to figure that the thing in question requires no further thought or input on our parts. We dismiss it as ‘solved’, as ‘done’, and move on.

I’ve read a number of articles on both sides of the argument- those that advocated publishing the images from Charlie Hebdo and those that supported those publications that refused to do so. There are those who say that if we demonstrate our ‘tolerance’ by not insulting the ideas of more than a billion people we are doing the right thing.

That particular argument sounds a little too much like the comments that Francis made. Using as faulty an analogy as I’ve heard recently, he equated ‘faith’ to his mother- and noted that insulting Il Mama would end with a  ‘punch in the nose’. “One cannot make fun of faith” he said. To do so will inevitably incite violence. Even from the guy who is supposed to be the earthly mouthpiece of the Prince of Peace.

I’ve said before that this Pope keeps surprising me with his (relative) progressiveness. So I have to say that this reaction disappointed me terribly. Not only did he realize an intangible (faith) as something concrete, he placed its sacredness above the human that challenged the idea.

We MUST be free to make fun- of faith, of science-denying political ideology, of anti-vaccination nincompoops, of those who think that the earth is flat- of any and all ideas that can’t be supported through reasoned discussion and evidential proof. We have to be free to question and constantly challenge those ideas that threaten other humans.

People always trump ideas. Nothing can be more sacred than our shared humanity. NO-thing. So ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘tolerance’ don’t get to supersede the freedom to question and poke fun at human-created ideological constructs.

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the States. I’m a little unclear as to whether or not it’s a statutory holiday (SNL had a satirical sketch about this very question on the weekend), but, regardless, it’s a day that people can use to demonstrate their ‘tolerance’ of the ideas that this great man- and proponent of peaceful action toward social justice- expressed decades ago.

Of the many pieces of quotable wisdom he left as part of his legacy, the one up there ^^^^ certainly applies to this discussion. There may be some irony, perhaps, in bringing Dr. King into a rant about doing away with the concept of tolerance. I’d argue that he wouldn’t recognize the uses to which we put the word these days- and the lackadaisical definition that now represents a once-proud concept.

I accept that his beliefs about religion- and the existence of and need for a god- differ from mine. I accept that his beliefs- and his cultural and temporal and geographical context- shaped his wisdom and provided a great deal of its continuing resonance. I also accept that his life experience was very different from my own- and that his ability to express his ideas about inequality and injustice have been pivotal in the shaping of changing political and social mores South of the Border (and, arguably, North of the Border, as well).

He is, deservedly, oft-cited. My very faves?

This one is also, actually, quite appropriate to this discussion. Different innocents, same concerns regarding the murderers.

We can’t possibly begin to do that if we ignore the reality that there are systems, in this world of ours, that are fostering the growth of philosophies- of ideas- that suggest that murder is an acceptable reaction to hurt sensibilities and offence taken when mythological figureheads are held up to criticism and satirical examination.

As a race, we humans are a pretty creative bunch. We industriously come up with ideas and theories- to which we grow attached and cling. It has been part of our continuing evolution as we seek to understand ourselves and our world. Our ideas define us- and some of them have, historically and practically, been pretty great.

Those ideas worth sharing, discussing and adopting are the ideas on which we should be focused. The ideas that are worthy of acceptance are those that speak to the fact that we are all the same. Playing at superficial tolerance, however sincere- without any attempt at real understanding- will only increase the body count and lessen our humanity.