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The case against tolerance

  • Published at 11:00 pm January 21st, 2020
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It is not enough to uphold liberal democracy

The dominant ethos of the current liberal social order seems to be built upon the idea of tolerance. The central belief is that a just society is where people accept the differences of each other and live peacefully.

This, of course, is a good idea. Tolerance is necessary for a society to remain non-violent and for order to be maintained. However, it does not seem that tolerance is a sustainable idea in the modern world. It seems that the frame of tolerance is breaking down under its own pressure.

All over the world, the idea of tolerance is under siege. The age of tolerance seems to have expired and society is growing increasingly intolerant. From the right, it is a way of dehumanizing and scrapping the rights of citizenship of those outside its narrative, and from the left, it is de-platforming and silencing those who do not agree.

In this sense, the present-day left and right have more in common than the participants realize, in that the frame of tolerance has not worked for either and they have all, now, become intolerant. 

However, the moderates try to answer this problem through a call for tolerance. But tolerance has proven to be unsustainable and exclusionary.

I say this because I read tolerance as a mode of communication that shrinks the space for dialectics. If the end goal of dialectics becomes tolerance, ie accepting the differences in ideas, then the dialogue becomes useless and the whole conversation runs in parallel, where each participant simply tries to express how right they are, instead of trying to learn or to even convince those who are listening.

This, I believe, is a result of capitalistic individualism. Individualistic liberalism has taught people that liberty simply means the liberty of the self, not society. This is why tolerance becomes the dominant frame, and under that, the translated political right stands as freedom of speech, not participatory democracy. But with just freedom of speech and no way of putting that speech into action, factions become radicalized and move away from the liberal centre.

Because present-day liberalism does not seem to be accommodating a pedagogic approach, it is becoming class-bound and liberal politics is failing in the periphery. From the United States to India, we can repeatedly see how the failure of the liberals gave rise to the nationalists and illiberal. This means that the structural problem of the liberal ethos must be identified, and I think that scrapping the idea of tolerance should be the first step.

Our policy should, instead, be that of engagement. Of course, we must accept the differences of one another, but we must also be willing to work towards some sort of resolution that may be acceptable to both parties. As such, there is a possibility of settlement in dialectics. But if one takes the easy escape of “agree to disagree,” this difficult task of dialectics, engagement, and participation becomes completely impossible.

This is not to say that we should forsake our convictions and say whatever the majority says. This is to say that our approach in the realm of ideas should be dialectic and pedagogic. We must speak to teach and listen to learn, not to dominate, not to prove that we know more than the other person -- because we do not. It is impossible to measure knowledge, because the localization of knowledge can rise to such intricate levels that what we may think is right and just from the top level may not be just under the ground reality.

People should have personal beliefs, but if we want the betterment of society or if we want inclusive progressivism, we must seek to update our beliefs according to the spirit of the time. If we fail to do so, we will betray the task of our generation, and the progressivism we speak of will become capitalistic individualism or some sort of nostalgic conservatism.

In order for that to happen, the collision of ideas is a foremost necessity. Tolerance is a step to that, but it is an inefficient social ethos and structural philosophy. If a system is built solely upon the idea of tolerance, it will barely have any reason to create spaces for civic engagement and participation, because simply providing protection from harm from those who disagree lets the state off the hook. This means that civic societies will be class-bound, location bound, and inaccessible to many.

But systems should be inclusive and participatory. The end goal of systems should be to be as human as a human society. But the idea of tolerance takes the humanity out of the society, puts it into cold storage, and repackages it into boxes labeled liberal democracy, which can never become participatory, because it does not need to.

Simply changing our belief system to a step further, into engagement, dialectics, and pedagogy would do a lot in terms of healing the schisms of society. In truth, most people, at least from where I come from, do not like the left-right divisions of identitarian politics. They simply want to see a better and prosperous society in which an organization that has space for people from all walks of life will work. If an organization is built on tolerance, civic engagement becomes impossible.

The idea of tolerance does not resolve the violence of ideas; it simply contains, or suppresses them. Therefore, under the façade of liberal democracy, there is always unexpressed anger which is bound to erupt when tolerance breaks down under its own contradictions. And when that happens, those who tolerate the intolerant face a strategic disadvantage because the tolerant are often unwilling to profess, because they are happy to withdraw from dialectics with the false hope that coexistence means harmony.

Because the idea of tolerance effectively makes people unable people to imagine something greater and lulls them into their comfortable bubbles, it is counterproductive to the goal of social progress. As such, the frame of tolerance must be thrown out and frames of meaningful engagement and resolution must be adopted.

We must have the conviction that, if an idea is true and just, it is possible that the idea will hold under a good-faith debate. And if we cannot debate, why do we believe in liberal democracy anyway? 

Anupam Debashis Roy is an editor and organizer at Muktiforum. His book Not All Springs End Winter comes out on this Boi Mela.