The Problem with Tolerance

by Vijay Nagaraj

The need to promote tolerance, often in the context of religious fundamentalism or ‘differences’ in general, is frequently stressed among UN human rights bodies and experts, and  states and NGOs alike. My concern over tolerance lies in its meaning: to ‘tolerate’ means to put up with something one dislikes. Tolerance is a distinct form of constructing ‘the other’, not in the image of one’s humanity but as someone to be endured despite ‘the otherness’, which is central to tolerance. There is a social distancing – a polite segregation – implied in tolerance.

In essence, the liberal idea of tolerance creates a hierarchy between the one who tolerates and the one who is tolerated – for example, when Western multiculturalist polities ingest disempowered minorities, such as migrants or indigenous peoples, often held up as a model of tolerance. The power relations between the two entities mediate the dynamics of this fragmentation. Those who tolerate set the limits – Muslims enjoy freedom of worship in Switzerland but cannot build mosques with minarets. The manufacture of tolerance is a game of power.

Tolerance, therefore, contrasts the idea of equality. Tolerance suits the contemporary liberal free-market capitalist set-up very well: the model of tolerance being our acceptance of glaring inequalities in wealth and power.

The thinner that public life and citizens’ experience with power and difference grows, the more citizens withdraw into private identities and a perception of fellow citizens as tools or obstacles to their private aims, and the more we appear in need of tolerance as a solution to our differences – a solution that intensifies our estrangement from one another and from public life as a field of engagement with difference.
Speaking of tolerance is a way of saying that we need not actively engage in the messy politics of power and difference. As Brown argues elsewhere, tolerance is a way of dragging into the field culture problems that originate elsewhere.

It is particularly disturbing that ‘religious tolerance’ is often invoked as a counter to religious fundamentalism. In fact, casting the latter as intolerance is a misreading of the phenomenon. Religious fundamentalisms are not as much about prejudice as they are about power; they encapsulate very conscious political projects. They seek a drastic re-ordering of relationships between self and others and challenge our autonomy to define our being and way of relating in intimate relationships, the family, community and at the level of the state. The character of this phenomenon requires us to call on ethical universes or pluriverses that can actually challenge it at the same fundamental level, and the liberal idea of tolerance is just not good enough.

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About the Author:

Vijay Nagaraj is the Executive Director of International Council on Human Rights Policy.

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