Tolerance: yeah, you definitely don’t understand that term ☆

| September 13, 2010

OK. we all get the picture being assembled by the media. the debate about whether or not a muslim group should build a mosque nearby the site marking the most prominent event of 9/11 is about tolerance.

but, of course, it isn’t. it isn’t about ‘tolerance’ at all: especially not the way the media would have us think of that term. because, as per usual, the media have framed the debate in a short-hand fashion designed more for convenience than any of the obligations of sensible reporting, informative analysis, or historical – we’ll leave out philosophical – accuracy. and, as per usual, the cropping of nuance and detail results in a picture which is flat and artificial, a very different item from what it seems at first glance.

yes, you guessed it: the concept of ‘tolerance’ is not about any kind of open-minded and easy-going way of letting everybody live together side-by-side in a bright new world of unconditional acceptance and mutual good will. no: historically the concept of tolerance is, as many scholars have noted through the years, in fact a christian concept designed to exonerate believers from any lingering sense that they should, on every occasion, intervene to suppress witnessed observances of forbidden religious practices lest their souls be condemned to hell.

that is, it is a concept designed to support the sovereignty of the observer’s (christian) belief-system and to remove it from the effects of contrary viewpoints, even in the uncomfortable situation of its obvious denial (by a muslim, say). it is a ‘bye’ for its practitioner to bestow on somebody who is not to be saved (or, in later terms, ‘assimilated’), and not something for the recipient to benefit from other than in being allowed to continue his/her form of life without, for the time being at least, being killed, detained or tortured (though still damned for eternity, naturally).

which means that the debate about the mosque, as framed by the media, is not actually about the reality of tolerance as it arose and has been practised in history. or else, if you must insist on featuring that word, the debate is in fact about tolerance, but in the form of exactly that kind of attitude the media elite seem so intent on rejecting.

for by using the word ‘tolerance’ in this unexamined, uncritical fashion, the media are unwittingly pointing to the very crux of the debate, whilst all the while appearing to be talking about something entirely different. rather than promoting, by inclusion of the word tolerance, the idea of an unalienable right to absolute freedom of religion the version of the debate driven by use of that word might more truthfully be seen to ask: should we aim to recognize, as the first proponents of tolerance did, that minority groups are limited in what they can assert against the majority point of view? this way we would be forced into the uncomfortable position of admitting, on the one hand, that there is a legal and constitutional right to build it on that ground; but insisting, on the other, that, by light of the concept of tolerance, there is a limit to any affront to be presented to the views of the majority, a line to be drawn which insists that, at base level, the values of the majority – whichever form they may take, and regardless of whether they are based on feeling or emotion – trump the right to offend that view.

after all, many US media outlets – including the venerable new york times – already trade in exactly that kind of logic. those same outlets which refuse to accept the validity of the argument against the cordoba center based on the sense of outrage and distress caused by the position of the mosque, have often stated in public editorials why it is they refuse to feature any pictures of the pastor terry jones burning a koran: specifically, because of the outrage which it would cause in muslim communities on account of it being an act deemed offensive to their values (and, presumably, the ensuing violence against property and persons perceived to be from the west which historically has followed those expressions of outrage).

so, by appealing to the population in terms of the venerable tradition of tolerance – held, by many commentators, to have prompted that band of religious extremists now referred to as the pilgrim fathers to seek out respite in the new american colony – are not the media continually reaffirming the validity of the very grounds they wish to eschew as the basis for any political argument – the sense that feelings, beliefs and the rhetorical values should determine in reality what is or is not permitted in any community?

oh, in case you were wondering: my favoured way of framing it, and one with a cheeky nod to the original conception of tolerance, asks: should we tolerate the building of the mosque because, as americans, we are so confident of the continued hegemony of our western way of life – of the continued dominance of an enlightenment-derived (secular and capitalist) social framework – that the ongoing existence of this religious centre cannot possibly interfere with or threaten the continuation of that way of life?

the answer, of course, has already been decided.