05 August, 2011

Tolerance is not binary

Following these discussions between social conservatives and liberals has made me think. Ever since the True Finns stomped to a landslide victory at the election, talk of immigration, culture issues and tolerance have been plentiful. That’s a good thing.

However, there has been a thing that regularly drives me to the boundaries of approvable behavior. The thing is the current concept of tolerance (or permissiveness, if you will). The current discussion has mainly revolved around trying to distinguish the tolerant from the intolerant. The idea seems to be that you are either tolerant, or you are intolerant. Liberals and conservatives have joined the fray from both sides eagerly. If it weren’t for our modern legal system, I’m quite sure advocates from both sides would have been burnt at the stake. The liberals are claiming to be tolerant for being more positive about immigration, gay marriage, or whatever the issue at hand. Painting their side as the tolerant essentially implies that conservatives are the intolerant. That, of course, is often an euphemism for ‘a bunch of crazy skinhead thugs’, as most of you probably have realized. Just don’t think conservatives get off the hook, either. A common argument is that since liberals don’t tolerate the intolerance of conservatives, they are intolerant themselves. This plays into the conservatives’ hands by implying that since the liberals are the intolerant, the conservatives must be the tolerant. If we stick to a definition that labels tolerance as “allowing any opinion one doesn’t like” we get exactly this kind of paradox hassle. 

Both above strategies rest on the assumption of binary tolerance: you are either tolerant or you’re not. Since the parties disagree about some things, and don’t agree on what is tolerable, it must follow that one of them (i.e. the others) are the intolerant. From the liberal’s perspective the conservatives are socially intolerant – and from the conservative point vice versa. Tolerance functions as a useful weapon to bash your opponent with – after all, nobody in the audience wants to be intolerant, do they?
Now, this whole mess started because of a bad variable class: tolerance as a binary variable. In retrospect it should be obvious it is not such, rather tolerance ought be cast as a continuum. There are very few binary variables in our personalities, and I can’t see a reason why tolerance would be an exception. To give an example, consider kindness, for example. Is that person nice or not? I’m sure people would agree that some of us are kinder than others. But still, it’s not as if there are only two classes of people: kind and unkind. Oh no, there’s everything in between, too. The same should go for tolerance, too. Most of the people I’ve met are rather tolerant of others, yet most of us wouldn’t be ok with everything. For some, the limit is gay marriage, for others it’s something else. But for most of us, such a limit exists. A tolerance of anything and everything is hardly a sound basis for a society.

A good reason to throw away this stupid binary tolerance definition would be the hope of having actual discussions. Instead of going around shouting intolerant! – essentially the equal of heretic 500 years ago – we could be having proper talks about who can tolerate what, and why there are differences. The realization that we all are more or less tolerant would hinder the division into two camps. There are very few problems that can actually be solved with a us-vs-them rhetoric.
It’s time to stop using the 0/1 scale. Even turning it into just a 0-5 scale would help.