Deconstructing the Notion of Tolerance

The 16th of November is the International Day of Tolerance. In honor of the celebration, we also want to take a moment to critically reflect on the concept of tolerance. When looking at ethics of behavior, communication and human interaction, a common aspect that often prevails is the notion of being tolerant. In public domains such as higher education, the work place and mass/social media, this concept is particularly popular. So, in this blog post, we’ll discuss what tolerance means, then we take a look at related and conflated concepts such as moral relativism and freedom of speech, and finally we look at implications and practices in our daily lives (how do we move forward?).

Defining Tolerance

According to the Cambridge definition, tolerance refers to “the willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.” Further definition can also be found in the Miriam-Webster online dictionary, which says that tolerance also refers to “the allowable deviation from the standard”.

In essence, without diving into ethics, political philosophy; and solely looking at real-world lived realities, we will notice that many institutions, including higher education and governments, promote a message of encouraging tolerating the “other”. This othering is usually a call towards tolerating (accepting) typically marginalized social identities, for example ethnically underrepresented groups or people outside of hetero-binary structures. 

A common context in which the discussion of tolerance occurs is when it concerns freedom of speech. The backlash to such instances usually argues that there is a  “corruption of the freedom of speech” and argues that there should be tolerance for “diversity of opinion”, instead (I will get back to this specifically in a few paragraphs). In this sense, tolerance is conflated with moral relativism, which refers to the idea that no belief can be judged, because all beliefs are equally worthy. But then one could also argue that Nazi Germany is also not to be judged, simply because it was the commonly accepted way of life in the 30s and 40s of the previous century, or Columbus’ massacre of people, lands, resources and culture. Right? I sure hope not. 

This is also when we should start questioning the premises of tolerance and its correlation to freedom of speech. Because, of course, no one should be judged for expressing a liking for pineapple on pizza, yet is it morally ethical to extend the same courtesy to hate speech? Should Geert Wilders be allowed to access large platforms where he can actively tell millions of Dutch people that Morrocans are “scum” and that “European values are incompatible with Islam”?

Moral Relativism, Tolerance & Freedom of Speech

The crucial difference between moral relativism and tolerance is that in the latter concept, there is a form of judgement (with a negative connotation) alongside its acceptance, where the first dictates a form of blind acceptance. In the higher education domain, both concepts can be harmful because neither builds upon equal opportunities, access and representation, because it does not acknowledge societal disparities and marginalizations. And the reason it doesn’t is because even tolerance in itself only calls for mere acceptance of one’s existence, but it does not call for the removal of the negative judgements and barriers towards underrepresented groups. 

For example, if an organization claims to be accepting and tolerant towards all, yet does not make the university and classroom infrastructures accessible to people with disabilities, what does that say? It says that at this institution we accept you despite your disability, but we won’t take the necessary steps to accommodate you. In a sense, tolerance allows for indirect discrimination, because tolerating means accepting one’s mere existence but not necessarily making the “common goods”, in this case education, accessible to them. This is exclusion. But it is tolerance as well. 

The Problem

I get it, it makes sense. I get the argument that if tolerance is plaininly accepted as a shared value within an institution such as higher education, or another public domain, the argument is fundamentally valid - the call for tolerance is a call for tolerance towards any opinion and expression. 

As I already touched upon, oftentimes when diverse social groups’ representation takes on a more important role in an organization, a common argument that comes to fruition is typically to embrace “diversity of opinion” too. And I argue that it is because of the conflation of moral relativism, tolerance and freedom of speech. To add onto this, freedom of speech is also falsely presumed to come without any responsibility. And the responsibility is founded on the idea that freedom of speech is to be limited if it has the potential to harm others. That includes necessary limitations when harmful and marginalizing stereotypes rooted in preexisting social power dynamics are being perpetuated. As stated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, having freedom of expression also means having an implied responsibility to protect others’ (human) rights. 

Further elaboration on the full understanding of freedom of expression as found on Amnesty International’s report

“ [...], the right to freedom of expression is not absolute — neither for the creators of material nor their critics. It carries responsibilities and it may, therefore, be subject to restrictions in the name of safeguarding the rights of others. In particular, any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence cannot be considered legitimate exercise of freedom of expression. “

Adding onto this, freedom should also not mean accessing platforms which have the potential to incite widespread hate. By widespread I also mean within a certain environment, which does not have to reach a whole nation (as we saw in the Geert Wilders example), in order to be considered widespread. So for example, hiring a speaker or lecturer who, for example, speaks against hijabs or holds sexist views, is enough to enable a stream of hate and a deepening of the marginalization of already disadvantaged groups.

And this is where the problem becomes most prominent. If an institution preaches plain tolerance towards everyone and everything, if it does not have supportive mechanisms in policy and practice to facilitate a diverse and inclusive culture; it is inevitable that it bases it’s values in moral relativism - no set of beliefs can be judged. Therefore, abiding by this logic, holding and/or preaching discriminatory views can not be judged. So how can we change this?

Towards a more human approach

There is no one solution or theory that can dictate how to interact interpersonally or in the masses in real life. But there are a few things we can do.

For institutions/organizations (examples are given about higher education but can be applied for a work place too):

  1. Make sure that tolerance is coupled with diversity and inclusion stances and practices.
  2. Make sure that the values you are upholding are clearly defined in your guidelines, and other organizational documents that dictate code of conduct.
    • Including how forms of sanctions and educational processes will be conducted.
  3. Make sure to outline the upholding of human rights in your organization.
  4. Make sure to outline what the specific limits of freedom of expression are in order to be able to apply corrective activities when malpractices occur. 
    • E.g. when you have a teacher who is being blatantly racist - firing them.
    • E.g. when you have a teacher who is unwillingly perpetuating stereotypes  - installing programs to educate and improve skills and knowledge about the topics at hand.
  5. Make sure to create supportive mechanisms for students who are disadvantaged in the process.

This is just a starting point and of course nothing is better than putting in the work beyond what you have on paper. However, having it on paper, training relevant figures in your organization, and establishing systems for upholding human rights as a basis, is paramount.

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