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Tolerance and social programs.

The widespread acceptance of the principle of self-determination in the Netherlands explains much about that uniquely tolerant country. This article is an edited version of a presentation to the 1992 World Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union by the secretary and managing director of Humanitas, the Dutch humanist organization involved in social assistance and community development. In the Netherlands, these services - although funded by the government - are delivered through the major religious organizations. Over 25 percent of the Dutch population identify themselves as humanists and receive their share of this funding through Humanitas.

To explore the connection between tolerance and the provision of social assistance, I will start with two practical examples. The first concerns a 76-year-old man who has been living on his own since the death of his wife and is becoming slightly senile. His daily life goes fairly well, but it is obvious that he needs some extra support. His children, together with some professionals, manage to give him that extra support. He is a bit forgetful, however, and at times lives in the past and is not always in control of the situation in the "here and now." This particular aspect is painful because we are dealing with a man of some intellectual achievement in the past. He wrote many articles and books that brought him international fame as a historian, and he cherishes these earlier accomplishments.

This man also owns a car which, until recently, he used to drive around Amsterdam. His children, however, viewed this with alarm because he was becoming a menace on the road, both to himself and others. Finally, his sons decided to take away their father's car - a considerable imposition on the man's freedom. (Indeed, in the past he had been a very capable driver.)

I will not argue whether the sons were right in interventing thus; they simply took away their father's car "for his own good." The sons knew their father's situation better than he himself did, and on this ground - their knowing best, as it were - the sons acted.

Another example: a little girl is playing on the sidewalk with a ball. Suddenly, she runs after the ball into the street. Just before she would be hit by an approaching car, a passerby is able to grab the girl, thus preventing her from being run over. The girl, however, does not understand the situation and kicks the passerby in the shins.

The similarity between these two examples is in the fact that people acted on the grounds of a better understanding of a situation than was possessed by the "victim" of that action. Now a different story.

The Inquisition, too, acted from a "superior" insight. The inquisitors were steeped in moral theory based upon divine revelation, and in those days there was no such thing as the right of everyone to search for their own truth - after all, their truth was established for all eternity. Moreover, the inquisitors were confirmed in their ideas by social and socio-psychological forces of which we have since acquired a better insight. With almost everyone around the inquisitor reinforcing his conviction that he had the only truth, what was he to do upon meeting a person with differing opinions? Should he allow such a person to be doomed eternally to burn in hell because of "wrong" thinking? The answer was no, of course he should not allow that. It was this reasoning that justified the Inquisition to condemn sinners to the stake, in order to destroy the sinful body but save the eternal soul. Thus, in those days, there was a reasoning similar to that of the sons and the senile father, or of the passerby who saved the girl from certain death. And here, it seems to me, is a root cause of intolerance - the conviction that one knows the truth.

But what is the truth? To answer this question, we must distinguish between "knowing" and "believing". The difference in thinking between the sons and the passerby on the one hand and the inquisitors on the other lies in our current understanding of the laws of nature, of which we believe we have reasonable knowledge; while in the case of the inquisitors, we leave the realm of the laws of nature. The division between knowing and believing seems indistinct, and yet since the Enlightenment we do distinguish between knowledge and belief. I am inclined to say that it is upon this distinction that the "commandment" of tolerance is based. Medieval people did not make the distinction, because believing and knowing were the same at that time. (Of course, there were exceptions, as there are to any such generalization, but my interest lies with the overall mental attitude.) Wherever a religion and its exponents rule a society, they rule because the distinction is denied. The same is true, by the way, for the political variant of what can be called "truth-totalitarianism," of whichever make.

Here are two further examples from daily practice here in Amsterdam. A while ago I was walking along the Amstel - the river which gave this city its name. On it are several houseboats, of which there are a number in Amsterdam. One of these houseboats was covered with waste and garbage, and, as I walked past it, my eye caught some movement in the pile of rubbish. It came from the keeper of the garbage - the occupant of the houseboat and apparently also collector of all the rubbish on the roof of his dwelling. Like a chameleon, the only thing that distinguished him from his background was the fact that he moved. Should this be tolerated, or should the Municipal Public Health Service be warned and the refuse collectors sent, followed by a cleaning service in order to put the man completely clean back on his houseboat? Or, as long as no one else is inconvenienced, should the volition of this man be respected and the situation left as it is? And what would constitute a legitimate "inconvenience" to this man's neighbors? Bad smells? Vermin? Or simply the unsightliness of the man and his houseboat?

Similarly, on the Frederiksplein, a square close to the National Bank and the office of Humanitas, there are a few benches occupied by a number of hobos. They group together in the sunshine, a bottle of beer in one hand, and in the other a plastic bag in which I presume they keep their humble possessions. One of the tramps can be found there whatever the weather - sitting in the sunshine and warmth or the cold and drizzle, insensitive to the mild pressure of the Salvation Army (among others) to find shelter elsewhere. People who pass him often are familiar to him and receive his grumpy greeting in passing. A while ago I was walking there with a female colleague. I raised my hand, and the man grunted at me. "What a repulsive man," my colleague remarked. "A few weeks ago I passed here and I saw him masturbating. It was not a pretty sight." I was ready to believe that, but what is to be done about him? Run him in for violating the Act of Public Decency or whatever it is called? Admit him to an institution? Voluntarily - or involuntarily? Or simply leave things as they are?

Here we don't achieve much with the distinction between knowing and believing. Both examples mainly confront us with ourselves and our judgments of other people, of what is decent and what isn't - with our culture and with the often unwritten laws of human intercourse. And before we know it, the concept of tolerance is bound by bourgeois narrow-mindedness; rather than a broadening, freeing notion, it becomes one that limits others and eventually ourselves, impeding personal development.

On the other hand, the notion that "to understand is to forgive" is also inappropriate. If we think that a certain action or manner of living can bring danger to a person, then should we not express this opinion - if we are in a position to do so without directly injuring that person's freedom to search for his or her own truth? The Salvation Army, which has had the most experience with such tramps, acts according to this view.

There is, of course, a limit to tolerance: namely, when others show intolerance toward us and the things we hold dear. Suppression of freedom - freedom of opinion, of organization, of the way we shape our own lives - is unacceptable.

There are many aspects to this subject of tolerance, of course. But I would simply call attention to the "Golden Rule" that is often found painted on Delft blue kitchen plates: "Do unto others as you would they should do unto you." There is, however, something missing in this moral, which Confucius taught as long ago as 500 BCE - and this leads me to the link between tolerance and social assistance.

My point is that we - as persons, as individuals - ought to refrain from acts that could affect others in a way that we should not like to be affected ourselves. A corollary is that one should take responsibility to prevent things happening to other people which one would not wish to happen to oneself. This can sometimes entail active intervention - even if the people involved don't approve of it - but only when we can base our actions on better knowledge (note: not belief). Think of the senile father whose car was taken away from him and the girl about to be run over. On the other hand, it means an explicit refraining from intervening in another person's life when this would unnecessarily affect their right to live according to their own beliefs. The activities of humanist social-assistance organizations should be supported by a notion of responsibility for the fate of fellow human beings, rooted in a sense of community. Sometimes this means actively intervening; at other times, actively refraining. Thus we can work toward a more humanistic society which offers space for everyone.

In conclusion, I would point out that the values we have discussed here are not irrefutable. Time and again we will continue to have to make choices under very difficult circumstances.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:address to World Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union
Author:van Oosten, Aad
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Transcript
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Humanism and postmodernism: a reconciliation.
Next Article:Death with dignity.

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