Monday, 18 May 2015

For too long we have been "passively tolerant"...

This is the first in what will be a new series of Blogs from the Morrell Centre for Toleration (it is written in a personal capacity).

The Morrell Centre for Toleration exists to “increase the philosophical and historical understanding an appreciation of toleration as an idea and practice”. In future Blog posts, I hope to alert readers to new literature and debates and to discuss issues related to this purpose. What prompts this Blog is the use of the concept of “toleration” by the Prime Minister followed by comments by the Home Secretary. I won’t be discussing the content of what they propose – though I have views about that, which may well follow in a separate piece – but rather their use of the term “toleration” and what they might mean.

David Cameron’s speech is not available in full, but he is reported as saying

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance. This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation… That means actively promoting certain values. Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality.

The first question is, what is a passively tolerant society? Presumably, it is not to be understood by reference to its opposite: an actively tolerant one. David Cameron seems to want less toleration, not more.

The first gloss offered – that we should do more than say as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone – does not help. The law, social norms, and other forms of regulation set out what citizens can expect the state and other citizens to tolerate (this is not an uncontroversial view of toleration).

I can wear a loud shirt in a built up area and expect others – not matter how much they disapprove – to tolerate my doing so. I can reprimand my child or my dog in public in some ways of which others might disapprove, but insofar as I keep within the law, I can expect to be tolerated. And that’s the point: if David Cameron wants to introduce new legislation, which he clearly does, what he will do is make more things subject to legal regulation.

Let us suppose that legislation is brought forward to allow so-called “banning orders” on organisations that seek to “radicalise” people. Stay within the law – be an organisation that is recognised as seeking to inform, but not to radicalise – and you’ll be “left alone”. Of course, in practice the law is likely to be vague and things will not be easy, but Mr Cameron cannot be suggesting that legal sanctions could simply fall on people who are accepted as “obeying the law” (of course, legal sanctions fall on many people who are in fact obeying the law, but are not believed to be or who it is convenient for the state to treat as if they are not, but that is another matter).

What, then, of the second gloss? This seems to be a version of the quip that a liberal is someone who does not take his/her own side in an argument. We have been neutral between values; we have not promoted our (right) values – freedom of speech and of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights, and so on – and that this is what it is to be “passively tolerant”. What is more, such passive tolerance has left a space for “extremism and grievance”.

The connection to grievance is hard to see, but is there any merit in the claim that tolerance leads to neutrality when it comes to values; a neutrality that in turn leaves a vacuum in the public sphere that can be filled by extremism?

To tolerate something is roughly to forebear from interfering in some practice that one judges objectionable when one has the power to interfere. Nothing in that suggests that promoting freedom and democracy is inconsistent with being tolerant unless promoting those things interferes in practices that lie within the limits of toleration.

Is there any reason to believe that the promotion of those values threatens practices or ways of life that ought to be tolerated? Insisting on “equal rights regardless of race, gender or sexuality” might do if it was enforced as it reads, but this Government is not about to insist that the Catholic Church appoint women priests or, for that matter, that the Garrick Club allow women members.

Perhaps the feeling is that we have been reluctant to promote those values even when the threatened practice ought not to be tolerated. That we have “turned a blind eye” to practices such a female genital mutilation or domestic violence in certain communities. And, that this permissiveness has left space for others.

If so, this is a failure, but it is not a failure of tolerance. Some things ought not to be tolerated – many more things ought to be – and it is a matter of justice and democratic politics to decide where the boundaries lie. In a liberal democratic society, we ought to tolerate people whose beliefs we find deeply objectionable, but we ought not to tolerate it when they act in ways that are contrary to just and legitimate laws. Think what you like, but obey the law and the state should leave you alone.

Interestingly, sent into the media studios to explain David Cameron’s speech, the Home Secretary Theresa May explained that “this government will challenge those who seek to spread hatred and intolerance” and that we needed to be more positive about the values that unite us: “things like democracy,… a belief in tolerance for other people, equality, an acceptance of other people’s faiths and religions.”

For Theresa May, then – and I suspect for David Cameron – it is passivity (not being positive enough about liberal values) that is the failing. Tolerance is a virtue to be celebrated. One should take comfort in that, but at a time when across the world people are being killed for their beliefs, condemning “tolerance” – even if in an unintelligible phrase like “passive tolerance” – is dangerous.

That leaves the question of whether there is space for both tolerance and the Government’s understanding that being “positive” requires introducing new laws to control its citizens. That is something for another Blog once the proposed legislation is clearer.

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