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Tolerance Is Not Good Enough

By Milton J. Bennett posted 19/01/2015

Recent events in France show the limitations of tolerance, and we interculturalists could be suggesting some more respectful and ethical responses to this tragedy.

Paradoxically, tolerance is based on the idea that it would be better for you ­not to be different. Being like me would be preferable, but I will magnanimously forgive you for deviating from that standard. In return for this preemptive gift, I only ask that you put up with whatever verbal abuse I might direct towards you in the name of "free speech." And, adhering to the Golden Rule, I will allow you (in principle) to abuse me similarly.

Tolerance is not a very stable condition. An imbalance in the tit for tat, an historical injustice unearthed, or a slight increase in demagoguery is enough to tip many people back into rampant prejudice, violent reprisal, and even genocide. Nevertheless, tolerance is touted as the only alternative to our tendency to destroy difference. Why does this flawed strategy for dealing with difference keep such a tight grip on our aspiration?

It is because we do not know how to be respectful of others. Respect - the idea that other people and their cultures are equally valuable and that our differences are mutually beneficial - demands that we have made an epistemological leap. It demands that we have acknowledged alternative ways of being in the world that are different from our own and that may be difficult to imagine. In other words, it demands that we have shifted from an absolutist and dualistic understanding of reality to one that is more relativistic.

People are discouraged from making the shift because there is no moral compass in relativism; what is good in my reality may be bad in yours, and vice versa. This might not be much of an issue if we were maintaining our human heritage of living in separate, non-interacting worlds. But we aren't. The reality of multicultural societies, no matter how tolerant they are, is that social actions inevitably favor one good over another. The problem is that we don't take these actions very respectfully. Instead, we justify our impositions with assumedly universal principles such as "human rights" or "free speech" (or "the word of God"). In other words, when faced with inevitable ethical choice, we assume we have "no choice" but to act ethnocentrically.

Is there a viable alternative? Yes, if we accept that what we have in common as human beings is our diversity. Thus, every ethical decision involves a clash of viable alternatives, and sophisticated intercultural ethicality is the ability to navigate these ambiguous waters respectfully. These are some of the issues explored in research supported by IDRInstitute and seminars offered through IDRAcademy.


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Elizabeth Tuleja wrote on 21/01/2015 at 14.46

Milton - thank you for your articulate perspective on this difficult topic. We are discussing this topic in my MBA Intercultural Management course at the moment and I will add this blog to their reading. Thank you.

Elizabeth Tuleja wrote on 21/01/2015 at 14.46

Milton - thank you for your articulate perspective on this difficult topic. We are discussing this topic in my MBA Intercultural Management course at the moment and I will add this blog to their reading. Thank you.

Bill Casey wrote on 21/01/2015 at 16.34

Excellent piece, Milton. Would very much like to see more of your thinking out in the popular press.

Nancy Foote Monroe wrote on 21/01/2015 at 16.56

Thanks Milton for unpacking the meaning of word tolerance. I'm passing this along to some of my MAIR friends. We've been talking about the intercultural take on what happened - this just adds some clarification. Merci beaucoup!

Douglas Stuart wrote on 21/01/2015 at 23.53

Beautifully said, Milton. I'm left, though with the ever-present query of how to help others make this epistemological shift (assuming we've made it ourselves and are comfortably and predictably centered there, even in response to acts of terror)? More importantly, perhaps, how do we most effectively respond to actions and speech by those who have not made the shift, and whose actions are unacceptable to (our) society? Can we accept the culture of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists as equally valuable as our own, for instance?

Milton Bennett wrote on 17/03/2015 at 14.48

Sorry Douglas for not responding to your thoughtful comment before now. I find it helpful to think of alternative human contexts as equally "viable" (following the cybernetic constructivist Heinz Von Foester) rather than equally "valuable." The basic question of validity is, "could the world be that way"? Well, yes it could, and apparently it has been, for most of our history as a species. So there is nothing less human about it. But is that way of being equally "valuable"? That's a question of how we assign goodness to one context or another. I probably agree with most people in our part of the world that killing people who disagree with you is not a good way of being these days. So, while fundamentalist terrorists are as human as we are, they are acting so far from our idea of good (and imposing their idea of good so summarily) that we should stop them if we can. However, in the process we should also seriously examine our own impositions of good on the world, particularly if they are justified by the assumption of our more "evolved" humanity.

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