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The virtue and practice of toleration

Professor Rajeev Bhargava, Institute for Social Justice and CSDS

The article was originally published by The Hindu

Why it would not be wise to push one form of toleration as a universal ideal in all contexts and for all times

It is increasingly felt by many that we are moving towards a fiercely conflict-ridden world in which toleration is needed badly. But what does toleration mean?

Perhaps it is best to begin by making a distinction between toleration as an attitude of individuals and toleration as a social practice. Toleration exists in a society where it is a prized personal attribute, a virtue. But it is also present where persecution, violent confrontation or bloodshed have somehow been kept at bay. For instance, where in the aftermath of civil war, convenient arrangements of cohabitation have evolved, fostered by sheer fatigue with violence. In short, toleration as virtue is not always necessary for emerging practices of toleration. Indeed, a tolerant society may well exist, at least temporarily, even amidst pervasive attitudes of intolerance.

Four conceptions of toleration

What then is toleration as an attitude? There are at least four different ways of understanding it. First, to tolerate is to refrain from interference in the activities of others, even though one finds them morally reprehensible, and despite the fact that one has the power to do so. Formulated in 17th century Europe after religious wars, this toleration is an attitude of forbearance preceded by psychological turbulence and anxiety; a person with more power eventually puts up with what he intensely dislikes in the less powerful. An example from our society might help: If cow vigilantes and their powerful backers accept the beef-eating habits of Dalits, Christians, Muslims and people of the Northeast, then they will have learnt toleration. Call this negative toleration.

A second conception of toleration also exists: two groups may find each other’s activities morally abhorrent and have equal power to interfere but both refrain from doing so because the cost of the ensuing conflict is far too high. They may reluctantly accept an arrangement of coexistence. This attitude of resignation is toleration mandated by balance of power, a modus vivendi toleration.

The presence of diversity and disapproval is common to all conceptions, but difference in form and intensity of disapproval yields two other variants. In the third, considerations of power are less relevant; instead, people refrain from interfering in each other’s activities largely out of indifference. Disapproval exists but is mild and not acted upon. In large, complex societies, the business of living one’s own life is so time-consuming that a concern with others is simply too onerous. People don’t really care about what others do, as long as it is not done directly or deliberately in their face. All they wish is to keep out of each other’s way. This is toleration as an attitude of live and let live, a feature particularly of post-industrial, individualist, liberal societies.

Finally, a fourth, mildly patronising conception, distinct from the other three, has been around for centuries. It is best understood in contrast with negative toleration in which others are reluctantly accepted against a background of prior hatred. Negative toleration manifests as privatisation of moral hatred. No such hatred is presupposed in the fourth conception. Take the following examples: one often puts up with the blemishes of our children that we would probably not condone in others; we choose to overlook a fault in our loved ones that we would not excuse in any one else. We endure deep difference in the world views of fellow citizens because we value fraternity. This has a religious version too. We might be strongly committed to a world of gods and goddesses but still be willing to acknowledge monotheists and atheists as fellow truth-seekers, following a common goal of ethical self-realisation. We may disapprove of their beliefs and practices and therefore be critical and yet view them as alternative manifestations of our own self, or as exemplifying common human religiosity. In all such cases we put up with disagreeable traits of others, even if we have some power to interfere, simply because overall we have positive feelings for them. Here one tolerates not despite hate but rather because one loves the other. A mixture of love, friendliness, and fellow feeling is the background that sustains this conception. Call this positive toleration, one encouraging moderately critical respect. This is not quite recognising others as equals but still an admirable stance towards others, a virtue.

Toleration for our times

Clearly, of all four, positive toleration is most desirable. But would it be wise to push it as a universal ideal in all contexts and for all times? I don’t think so. Which form of toleration is best suited then for our time, when intolerance is part of religious or nationalist piety for many? Recall the distinction between toleration as practice and as an attitude. In complex, diverse societies, inhabited by people with varying temperaments, dispositions and upbringing, we might not share the same tolerant attitude but still manage to agree on common practices of toleration. Those consumed with passion, verging on the fanatical, may be persuaded to cultivate negative or modus vivendi toleration. Those with a more empathetic disposition may well cultivate the virtue of positive toleration, embrace an attitude of critical respect. And the many in between should easily be satisfied with an attitude of live and let live. To expect everyone to cultivate the virtue of toleration is unrealistic today. But is it not our good fortune that uniformity in tolerant attitudes is not necessary for a tolerant society?

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