The purpose of religious tolerance has always been, and remains, to maintain the power and purity of the dominant religion in a given state. Most dominant religions in most states today profess tolerance, but they also seem to feel especially threatened. Religious nationalist movements in the United States, Europe, India, Turkey and Israel all want to strengthen the relationship between state identity and the dominant religion. In each case, democratic elections have reinforced the significance of the majority’s religion to the meaning of state and nation, elevating the power of that religion. We can see a rising chauvinism in the mix of Catholicism and politics in eastern Europe today that portrays liberals and communists (often a code for ‘Jews’) as enemies. We can see a similar dynamic in the Turkish celebration of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. And we can also see it in the reemerging influence of Evangelicals in the US, as defenders of ‘religious liberty’ in their associations and businesses, and against ‘Sharia’ – as they imagine it – in the public sphere.
Even as religious nationalism gains strength, claims to membership in the ‘West’ rest in large part on a political avowal of religious tolerance. When religious nationalists claim the mantle of tolerance based on the legal protections that exist for religious minorities in their states, they are not wrong. Tolerance has indeed historically been a framework for people fundamentally different from one another to live peacefully together. Which is precisely why it is time to dispense once and for all with tolerance as a model for relations between groups.
Tolerance skepticism has a long history, stretching back to the German author J W Goethe, who said ‘to tolerate is to insult’. It faced a sustained critique after the Second World War from philosophers and political theorists such as Karl Popper, Herbert Marcuse and many others who saw liberal tolerance as guilty of passively acquiescing to the rise of fascism in the first half of the 20th century. Where Popper saw that a liberal society required repression of some intolerant views for self-preservation, Marcuse saw liberalism’s tolerance of injustice as the problem itself.
Following Marcuse, in the 1960s the New Left asked if the idea of tolerance – especially of speech and political diversity – served only to shield governments, corporations and the elite in continuing policies of economic and racial oppression. More recently, a school of international-relations scholarship has emerged emphasising how the foreign policy guiding Western governments now divides the world between the tolerant and the intolerant in much the same way that it has always distinguished between the civilised (whites) and the barbaric (everyone else). Even so, the question of how tolerance – religious tolerance in particular – could be a tool of domination strikes many people as counterintuitive or perverse. Tolerance is deeply rooted in the canon of apparent modern ideals: as an inherent good, a necessary individual ethic, a pillar of Western civilisation and proof of its superiority.
Yet tolerance, as an idea and an ethic, obscures the interaction between individuals and groups on both a daily basis and over the longue durée; the mutually reinforcing exchange of culture and ideas between groups in a society is missing in the idea of tolerance. Groups do not interact in isolation, they share reciprocally, sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertently. If it is true that a global society exists, what its best parts embody today is not tolerance, but reciprocity, the vital and dynamic relationship of mutual exchange that occurs every day between individuals and groups within a society. For teachers, journalists and politicians to begin to speak in terms of reciprocity instead of tolerance will not do away with intolerance or prejudice. But words are important and, as much as they reflect our thoughts, they also shape how we think. Idealising tolerance embeds dominance. Speaking in terms of reciprocity instead of tolerance would both better reflect what peaceful societies look like, and also tune people’s minds to the societal benefits of cultural exchange.
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