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Reflections on intolerance.

Insofar as all societies are based on the foundation of shared common traits, be it language, creed or political conviction, it can be argued that they have all sprung from the principle of intolerance.

The international forum on intolerance held in Paris in March 1997 by the Academie Universelle Des Cultures, founded in 1992 by Elie Wiesel to address, as per its charter, 'the issues of the twenty-first Century and in particular the blending of cultures', assembled an impressive list of historians, writers, politicians and Nobel prize winners. The published papers of the forum, L'Intolerance, edited by Francoise Barret-Ducrocq (Grasset, Paris 1998, ISBN 2-246-55751-8), raise a broad range of issues which will be taken into consideration in this discussion which deserves wider consideration in the English-speaking world.

Intolerance so pervades history that a glance at any given period reveals a host of examples; the odium theologicum and the various religious persecutions and wars which it engendered are the most obvious manifestation with which the word is inexorably linked. Religious intolerance, however, is by no means the only form that a historical perspective can reveal. Racial and political intolerance have played more than a cursory role in human events and one could argue that intolerance can take on as many forms as there are convictions.

For all its pervasiveness, intolerance, as a notion and term, gained currency only with the age of reason. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives 1611 as the first date for the occurrence of the word intoleration (rare) and 1765 for the more common intolerance, whereas both tolerance and intolerable are ascribed to Middle English (c 1150-c 1350) and toleration to 1517. French presents a similar case with 1611 also being given as the earliest date for intolerance and 1561 for tolerance (with a single isolated occurrence in 1361). Intolerable, as in English, falls into the Middle Ages with a dating of 1265 (Le Petit Robert).

Intolerance is usually defined as a denial of the right to differ, but such a definition is not only narrow but fails when applied to racial intolerance. The obvious juxtaposition of tolerance/intolerance, where the latter is a negation of the former, fails for a different reason. Its circuitous approach throws little light on the subject; it would be like defining hate as a lack of love, which if momentarily it seems to be a step in the right direction is quickly discredited when applied in the opposite direction; love as a lack of hate. No matter how true, such statements do not lead to a better understanding because they throw no light on the process that brings about a state of intolerance.

Given that definitions, in themselves, are rarely decisive, it might be wiser to examine some of the manifestations of intolerance first and ascertain, as far as possible, if they share some common characteristics.

Within the family circle we tolerate certain behaviour (be it table manners or domestic disputes) which we would not tolerate from an outsider. Rarely, however, would we describe such a lack of tolerance as intolerance. In relation to someone who acted with the familiarity reserved to the closest of kin we would more readily use the label intolerable, a term we shall have occasion to explore further on.

Intolerance is rarely an adjective which is self-ascribed, more often it is used by rational discourse to describe behaviour that is deemed irrational; as something begotten of fear and hatred.

In tracing the sources of intolerance, Umberto Eco (L'Intolerance pp. 1519) takes just such an approach and argues that intolerance short-circuits reason by appealing to raw instincts, and concludes that rationalism cannot define intolerance per se because it is at the basis of very different phenomena and has its roots in both human and animal impulses. The anthropologists Francoise Heritier and Harris Memel-Fote explore the self/other dichotomy as the primary impulse in the formation of societies (L'Intolerance pp. 24-27 and 45-50). Taking these approaches into account it is worthwhile to reflect for a moment on the mechanisms of kinship.

The origins of society have been much speculated upon and as such remain the domain of philosophy, but no matter whether we take the view that humans are social beings by necessity (as Hobbes' social contract theory does) or by innate instinct (Samuel Clarke's view among others), the fact remains that aside from genealogical ties, the kinship process that binds a group together relies on cultural principles and social mechanisms. Be it at a tribal or national level, a shared language, belief system and social etiquette or mores mould the individual and form a set of shared experiences and common viewpoints. As both Hume and Adam Smith remarked, social standards rely on the individuals' identification with society which acts as a mirror in which individuals can perceive their own reflection. The analogy of the mirror is an apt one; we distinguish those that belong to our group by the fact that we recognise traits which resemble our own. What happens, however, when someone differs from ourselves can bring to the surface a reaction diametrically opposed to recognition.

'Foreigners have become people everywhere' bewailed Ipu-wer in a papyrus the original of which is believed to date from the period between the Old and Middle kingdoms of Egypt (2300-2050 BCE). Ipu-wer was condemning the breakdown of government that had led to social and economic chaos. The term 'men, humans, people' was reserved for Egyptians; foreign neighbours were somehow conceded to be 'other'. Macrobius, the 5th century neo-Platonist, questioned whether slaves possess human standing and if the gods took them into consideration. The persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany rested on the belief that they were Untermenschen, submen.

These examples reveal the negative side of kinship and highlight the dehumanising element that enables one group to scorn, subjugate or annihilate another.

Central to all sense of identity, be it on an individual or group basis, are the various belief systems. Amongst them, religion (from religio, to bind) is not only a bond between the individual and the god(s) but also binds the group that shares the belief system. Here it is important to remember that the plural 'religions' only gained currency, like intolerance, in the enlightenment period. Indeed that simple factor can reveal a great deal about the mechanisms of intolerance.

At its inception, Christianity was a religion of intolerance. The God of the Old Testament was a jealous God but the sphere of Judaism was confined to the chosen people. As a proselytising monotheistic religion Christianity was unique until the rise of Islam in the seventh century. The persecution of the early Christians by the Roman Empire was not so much due to religious intolerance, for the Romans readily adopted foreign gods and did not attempt to convert the people they conquered to their religion beyond participation in state ceremonies which were religion-based but from which the Jews, for example, were excused.

Christianity was seen as a subversive element that sought to undermine the state. The concept of idolatry and paganism, as a criticism, was alien to the Greco-Roman world. As a missionary religion the belief that there had always been only one truth, known to the pagans in a fragmentary and corrupt form and fully revealed only in Christ, was a radical new idea and meant that there could not be different kinds of religion.

The biblical injunction that 'he that is not with me is against me' (Matthew xii, 30 and Luke xi, 23) drove the missionary zeal to convert all people to the revelation of the single truth and to oppose all variant interpretations. The odium theologicum that characterizes theological dissension within the Christian faith and which is evident from the earliest times (e.g. the Gnostic, Marcion and Origen 'heresies') is innate to a belief in a single truth. Any difference in interpretation of that truth brings with it a fundamental challenge to the orthodox viewpoint. The persecutions of the heretics and religious wars sought to prevent the potential or real source of corruption from tainting the 'purity' of the Christian society.

The same basic forces that have operated in religious intolerance can be seen at work in racial and political intolerance. The one party or one ethnic stance relies on the single ideology principle to unite the group, everything outside that ideology must either conform to it if it is not to arouse the enmity of the group. The modus operandi of intolerance often relies on what Umberto Eco aptly terms un raccourci terrible (a frightful shortcut). Fear that turns to hate leads to an attempt to eradicate the perceived source of that fear. One might say that whenever there exists a complex equilibrium of tensions, as is the case in most societies, the moment that a crisis arises there will be an individual or group who will propose to cut the Gordian knot, a solution which never did face the problem of unravelling the complex skein, by polarising into us versus them.

Therefore, whenever society is in turmoil the risk of intolerance is greater. As the Polish historian and politician Bronislaw Geremeck (L'Intolerance pp. 151-155) poignantly notes: 'There are no people who are intolerant, xenophobic or anti-Semitic by nature. In the crowds that are enraged by hate, by intolerance, one sees especially people who are tired, anxious, despairing. Intolerance and hate can manifest themselves in moments of crisis as well as in times of prosperity. In fact they express the despair, the identifying anxiety (l'inquietude identitaire); they express the rejection of the world in which we live . . . But the disenchantment is dangerous and, in post-communist countries, some politicians aim to profit from social frustrations by proposing policies that generate hate and intolerance.'

The one-people ideologies that lead to the ethnic cleansing policies in former Yugoslavia can gain power only by inciting hatred; the process of slandering the 'enemy' with accusations of atrocities in turn justifies the atrocities which are perpetuated. The resulting escalation of brutality turns former neighbours into deadly foes with each accusing the other of being inhuman. Intolerance on an individual level can lead to individual acts of violence but when used as a polarising tool by political or religious factions it can bring about a reign of terror whose bloodletting knows no bounds.

In its more passive mode, on the other hand, intolerance leads to an avoidance of contact, the most extreme example being the ghetto, originally the name of a small island off Venice to which the Jews of that city were exiled in 1516. A more recent example of segregation was the apartheid of South Africa before the election of Nelson Mandela. Again this is an extreme example, as is wont to be whenever intolerance has the full weight of the state behind it.

Ultimately the forces that maintain and define the ethos of a society state, religion and culture - can act as either (or both?) propagators or inhibitors of intolerance. But can intolerance lead to any positive results? Or, to give the question greater impetus, must intolerance, by definition, be viewed as a purely negative force?

The American Civil War of 1861-1865 can be interpreted as a case in point where a crisis of national identity was centred on a question of intolerance - intolerance of the practice of slavery. It was the social, rather then political, pressure of the anti-slavery movement that brought the issue to the forefront. (It should be remembered that Abraham Lincoln ran for president in 1860 on a platform opposing further extension of slavery and until 1862 the aim of the war remained the preservation of the Union and the reuniting of the slave states which had seceded to form the Confederate States.)

Undoubtedly at a time when Europe had largely dismantled the practice of slavery (in Britain the long campaign of the abolitionists, led by William Wilberforce, saw the abolition of slavery and slave trade in the British dominions in 1806, followed in 1833/4 by the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire), many Americans must have felt the existence of slavery in America not only as morally reprehensible but ultimately as an unacceptable component in the makeup of their national identity.

The American Civil War radically altered the ethos of the society and validated the rule-by-majority; that that majority would always uphold a sense of justice is by no means certain, as the treatment of the native American Indian sadly proved.

The role of the modern democratic state as a neutral government that protects all its citizens, regardless of class, creed or ethnic background and prevents factions from endangering the lives of other members of that society, is closely linked to the separation of state and church. But if tolerance has become a political principle - indeed, in a multi-cultural setting, one might even argue for a political necessity - can we affirm without hesitation that tolerance is an adequate force to counteract intolerance?

As a human characteristic intolerance can never be eradicated, individuals will forever identify themselves with one group and reject others; the danger lies rather with the credence that a group will give to their truth as being the supreme and only valid one. This, coupled with the least vestige of power, can quickly lead to a tyranny, be it of the many against the few or the few against the many. To tolerate such a situation (the toleration of intolerance), would, for most people, be a distortion of values. And yet, as Harriet Taylor Mill wrote in An Early Essay on Toleration (which, as John Stuart Mill pointed out in his autobiography, inspired the writing of On Liberty on which she collaborated) '. . . while we can be conscious that we tolerate there must remain some vestige of intolerance'.

The relationship between tolerance and intolerance can be taken further. While the toleration of an immigrant labour force during times of prosperity is rarely challenged, the moment the economic situation deteriorates a crisis can quickly ensue. Heinz Wismann in his contribution to the Paris forum 'The voice of tolerance in German philosophy' (L'Intolerance pp. 95-98) quotes Goethe's view on the subject that endorses tolerance, but only as a temporary stance that in the end process must lead to a full recognition. Goethe's maxim that 'To tolerate is an insult' points to an interpretation of tolerance that reveals it as a dormant form of intolerance.

As long as tolerance involves the act of allowing what is not actually approved to form part of society, the risk remains that the situation can all too easily slip into indifference or revert to intolerance.

If we are aware of the dangers that intolerance can lead to, we must also come to an understanding of the role of the intolerable. Michelle Perrot (L'Intolerance pp. 107-110) points out that a laisser aller attitude which ignores the tensions at work in a society can lead to situations that are intolerable. How to define what is intolerable and what a society chooses to tolerate requires a constant awareness of the potential dangers and an ongoing dialogue at all levels of the society.

In the end process intolerance operates through oversimplification, the 'frightful shortcut', the raccourci terrible that arouses fear and hatred and is characterised by a stance that sets up an insurmountable barrier between an identifiable us and a chimerical them.

Olivier Burckhardt is a poet, writer and translator.
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Author:Burckhardt, Olivier
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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