A British politician has offended a number of people with racist remarks, and a Guardian opinion writer has written about how annoying it is, in the 21st century, to still have to argue with people about why racism is not witty – it’s just wrong. I sympathise with her, but I can’t agree with the headline: “Bigots must not be tolerated”. Tolerated is exactly what they must be.
When we tolerate someone, it means we accord them the same respect as everyone else, but we disagree. The alternative is to agree with everyone (impossible for anyone with a functioning brain) or to eliminate everyone who differs from us. That last solution has always been the most appealing – and the most appalling. Totalitarian societies everywhere – from the smallest schoolyard clique or over-controlled household to the largest of militaristic nations – have only ever produced facsimiles of freedom and happiness, and are always directly responsible for the rebellions they create amongst their own members. Civil society – a loving society – in an imperfect world must grant others the right to be wrong. We need to have some basic parameters for what level of wrong we won’t allow to overflow into action, and we have to recognise the impact of media upon people’s beliefs and therefore their behaviour; so we need some level of censorship, and we need to police behaviours that are clearly harmful. But beyond those basic limits, we also need to allow other people to be wrong. Because who knows, they may actually be more right than I am, and I need them to point this out to me.
So I think political bigotry is wrong – dangerously wrong – but it would be even more wrong for me to try to shut the bigot up. In the age of the sound-bite and the tweet – wisdom in 140 characters or less – we are becoming dangerously unskilled in the art of argumentation. We want everything to be resolved in a couple of snide remarks and a slick put-down, followed by a witty one-liner that is only barely relevant. We want to be able to tell who the good guys and the bad guys are by the way they’re presented by media massagers. We want to be led by the nose – provided our leaders smell of roses. We don’t want to have to tolerate people who disagree with us, because that means engaging with people who are different to us.
Toleration is easy if we don’t have contact with people we disagree with. It’s like William Booth’s first attempts to serve the poor of his parish; when he encouraged them to attend worship the regular parishioners complained about the smell. He ended up instituting services especially for the poor, because the well-to-do wouldn’t tolerate the stink of poverty. Isolating ourselves from those with whom we disagree or from realities that we find disagreeable is not tolerance; it’s the opposite. Tolerance means staying close enough to be made uncomfortable, staying there while we try to deal with the difference. In the end, we may still disagree, but we may also have made friends and learned to respect each other.
We might even have made a difference for someone else. And that’s worth a whole lot more in God’s kingdom than a whole pile of self-righteous preaching.