Having contemplated the limits of tolerance, I thought it might be productive to ask what we do when we hit those boundaries. When we find someone else intolerable, it’s easy to give ourselves justifications for anger. We can clench fists and work up a good helping of moral indignation, and then decide that things ought to be done and this should not be allowed to continue. We can decide that based on our own opinions, we have the right to take action and challenge the behaviour of another. There will be times when this is both justified and necessary. There are also plenty of times when it isn’t. There was an incident years ago when an angry mob, wound up by tabloid reporting, decided to do something about a paediatrician in their area, not having grasped this is a wholly different title to paedophile. When we lash out in anger, even if we feel total justified at the time, we can still make horrible, irreversible mistakes. If we respond with aggression, because we feel entitled to do so, what are doing? Do we really feel everyone is entitled to act unpleasantly if they find something else intolerable? The greater the outrage we feel, the more natural it seems to want to respond with something decisive. A little justice perhaps. An eye for an eye. There are plenty of men who think infidelity is a valid justification for murder. There are people who think blasphemy justifies murder. There are people who think being raped is the fault of the woman and that it would then be reasonable to stone her to death for infidelity. We can recognise there are things that should not be tolerated, but as soon as we use our own intolerance to justify violence, cruelty or oppression, we have ceased to act honourably. How then can we tackle unacceptable situations and behaviour? Whatever the precise methods we go for, I think the broadest answer must be ‘with compassion.’ That doesn’t mean letting abuse go unchecked and crime ignored, but it does mean drawing breath, stepping back, considering bigger pictures and root causes as well as the anger of the moment. I have a friend who works in prisons teaching basic literacy and maths to inmates. That says a lot about the circumstances of many people who get on the wrong side of the law. Studies show poor nutrition contributes to crime and antisocial behaviour. Abusers may well have been victims as children. Locking people up and making more restrictive laws does not solve much. People who are happy with their lot in life do not tend to become terrorists. That doesn’t mean placating everyone either. It doesn’t mean everyone has to have their own way in all things for fear of what they might otherwise do. What underpins every society is individual relationships between people. Relationships between different groups of people. Relationships between organisations. Relationships with the state. Failures in these beget problems. Where there is inequality of opportunity and education, where the system is stacked against the poor, where there is abuse of power, corruption, oppression and institutionalised cruelty, there are going to be social problems. And equally a culture that looks the other way, allows certain groups of people to break laws, does not hold people accountable for their actions and so forth will also foster disrespect and crime. If we want to vent anger and point fingers, it’s not enough to think about individual wrongs. We need to look out our whole society, its beliefs, methods, institutions, the things it tells people, the pressures it exerts, the actions it condones. Society is made up of every individual within it, and each of us is affected by what everyone else does. So you can’t think about answers purely on the individual scale, or purely on a political scale either. At the limits of tolerance, we need to find the motives, to demand real justice and make real changes. We are so far from being a fair society, it’s little wonder we have so much to get angry about, and compared to some of the world, we English speaking nations are models of social justice and democracy. And we aren’t even close to what that should mean.
Tag Archives: responsible living
By Nimue Brown
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