Tolerance Is Not Good Enough

by Milton J. Bennett


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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