Tag Archives: tolerance

Breaking your social contract

Following on from yesterday’s blog about social contracts, but not requiring you to have read it…

Civilization is, in practice, underpinned by co-operation. There will always be those who try to compete and exploit, and to a degree, that can be coped with. A grouping of people that goes too far into power hunger or exploitation is likely to experience conflict. The laws held by countries, and the rules held by groups of people exist to try and keep everyone co-operative enough for things to work.  Crimes are things that have the capacity to undermine your culture.

Any culture, community or civilization has the right to resist behaviours that will undermine its viability. This is not at all the same as having the right to make laws and rules that destroy the freedom of others. There’s only so much rigid control you can inflict on a group before it will shatter under the pressure of that.  Those who wish to restrict reasonable freedoms will often justify what they do as being a way of upholding and protecting culture, but that doesn’t make it so. Those who do not want their ‘freedom’ to break social contracts restricted, will call any effort to protect the basis of society an encroachment on their rights.

I think these are the things we need to bear in mind when talking about the right to free speech and the limits of tolerance. If we allow the kind of speech that undermines social bonds we move towards a more oppressive arrangement and if we keep moving that way, we get massive social unrest and violence. If we tolerate people who want to make society intolerable for some, then we’re moving our group towards a state of unviability.

We can afford to accommodate any amount of difference if that difference doesn’t prevent anyone else from quietly getting on with their own lives. Women wearing headscarves are not stopping anyone getting on with their own lives. Women forced to wear headscarves are being prevented from getting on with their own lives. Being LGBT doesn’t stop anyone else from quietly getting on with their own life. If being LGBT is illegal, or encounters violence, then people aren’t being allowed to quietly get on with their own lives.

Tolerance must be limited by whether being tolerant will undermine the feasibility of your people. Tolerance that allows people the maximum freedom it can to live in their own ways, is a good thing. Tolerance that allows people to restrict the freedoms of others is problematic and sows the seeds of its own destruction. The only freedoms we should not allow each other are the freedoms to harm each other. As the intention of hate speech is to bring harmful practices into a culture, hate speech should not be tolerated.

Intolerant societies have violence hardwired into them, and/or break down into violence. Peaceful societies are inclusive, and only restrict freedoms in so far as that’s necessary to prevent harm.

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When inclusion excludes

In theory, inclusion should be the default setting, but in practice often when you choose to include one person you can find you are excluding another. Here are some examples.

If you include someone who has acted abusively, you exclude their victim, who may feel they have no choice but to quietly leave.

If you include someone who takes up a lot of time, energy or other resources, you may exclude people who needed a share of that, but who are less overtly demanding.

If you include people who are always massively late, you may frustrate, demoralise and ultimately lose the people who turned up in good time and good faith.

If you include someone who is vocally intolerant and bigoted, you may well exclude people who find that behaviour unbearable.

If you include people who are exploitative and there for what they can get you exclude people who cannot afford to be treated as a resource in that way. This includes issues of emotional labour.

What happens all too often is that people who make the most fuss, who are most demanding and most able to assert themselves get what they want out of situations. It is the people who are willing to be emotionally manipulative who will demand a place for themselves even when they manifestly do not deserve one. It is easy to end up excluding quieter and less demanding people who vote with their feet when faced with things they can’t bear. Those exclusions may be invisible – it seems like they’ve just given up or gone away, not that they have been driven away.

What we include, what we tolerate, and who we allow informs who we don’t get to keep. It can be easy to lose sight of that. A community is the sum of its members, and when we prioritise the ones who are most demanding, the cost may not be immediately apparent.


The contradictions inherent in virtue

Every virtue has the seed of its own destruction inside it. Taken too far, or taken the wrong way and things that should have been virtuous and brought good into the world become dysfunctional or damaging. The problems come when we get too focused on practicing the specific virtue and stop putting it in the context of a bigger picture.

Tolerance that tolerates intolerance sows the seeds of its own destruction. When you accept that all views deserve to be heard and all comers are due a place at the table, you empower those who will take power from others. Tolerance needs to be conditional on excluding the truly intolerant. When we’re so invested in our tolerance that we’ll tolerate anything and anyone, we enable Nazis, fascists and other haters.

Modesty and humbleness, and avoiding pride can in itself become a form of pride. These are particularly Christian virtues, and the way they seed their own destruction can often be best seen in those who claim Christianity as their faith. When people become enthusiastic participants in their own martyrdom, and keen to announce how humble, modest and good they are, it’s pride in a different hat. But it’s more problematic than simple, honest pride, because it’s also self deluding.

Being kind can become profoundly unkind when it supports people in doing harmful things. If we’re too kind to tell someone that what they do isn’t working. If we’re too kind to call out an abuser, question dodgy thinking or protest at inappropriate behaviour, we enable all those things. The kindness that lets someone carry on destroying their own life isn’t very kind at all.

Often the wider frame we need for navigating here, is honour. But even honour holds the seeds of its own destruction. If we focus on how to appear honourable and how to put ourselves forward as the best and most honourable people, we won’t always do what’s needed. Sometimes what’s needed is a lot more complicated than personal honour will allow. When the laws become toxic and the leaders are false, it ceases to be honourable to hold up laws or dutifully follow leaders. When the truth around you is evil, lying can become necessary. When the system is unfair, cheating can become essential.

At every turn, you can use the seed of destruction within a virtue to act badly while claiming the moral high ground. At every turn, you can use the knowledge that every virtue has its limitations to justify not even trying, or to protest that virtue itself is meaningless. It is a difficult thing to meaningfully practice virtue in a dishonourable age.


Abusing your tolerance

There are four standard ways of turning a tolerant person’s tolerance against them. This is how they are presented:

Method 1) You have to tolerate my intolerance or your tolerance is a lie. Hate speech is freedom of speech, silencing hate is dictatorial, oppressive and intolerant.

Method 2) Your tolerance is allowing terrible people to do terrible things. Most typically at the moment, if you are tolerant of Muslims, you are tolerating anything that can be pinned to a Muslim criminal, if not actively encouraging and endorsing it. It’s because of people like you that a Muslim gang was able to sexually abuse white teenagers in the north of the UK.

Method 3) Your tolerance is, in a round about way, causing people to do terrible things. People becoming fascists, perpetrating hate crimes and voting for psychopaths is basically a reaction against your dangerous, oppressive tolerance.

Method 4 ) Your tolerance is oppressing me. I want to celebrate Christmas, but your tolerance means it’s not politically correct for me to be straight, white, Christian, affluent, safe. Your tolerance is not really tolerance, your tolerance is a means of oppressing innocent majorities.

I see these go by regularly online, and I think it’s important to publically flay their dodgy hides off. These statements are used to silence and confuse people who are tolerant, inclusive, compassionate and generally decent human beings. It fails to recognise that what we want to do is extend those basics of human decency to anyone who is quietly minding their own business and not doing any harm. Tolerance doesn’t embrace violence, criminality or hate, regardless of who is doing it. That would be apathy. Tolerance doesn’t stop people from going about their own harmless business – tyranny does that.

Genuinely tolerant, inclusive people aren’t afraid of not ‘being PC’ if a person is acting dreadfully. We might want to talk about the context, but understanding the reasons is a whole separate issue. Being told you can’t do things because they aren’t PC, actually tends to come from people who are not PC. Like the whole celebrating Christmas thing – the idea there’s even a problem here comes from the anti-PC brigade and seems to be a self perpetuating myth.

The idea that inclusive people who don’t need everyone else to conform to their preferences are in some way the cause of people becoming Nazis, is one of the most curious bits of double think I’ve seen in a while. It recognises that the Nazi bit really isn’t good, or desirable, but rather than blame the Nazis amongst us, is blames the people who are doing most to try and resist that very thing. At this point I can only shake my head in confusion and point you towards my recent post on gaslighting.

This isn’t about logic, or reason, it’s about forcing other people to shut up. The kind of people who attack tolerance and inclusivity don’t, I suspect, really care if the logic holds up. It’s not about the logic, it’s about the winning – which is why arguing and reasoning is likely to be a waste of your energy. Tolerance is not obliged to embrace the intolerant in order to still count as tolerant. It’s not a freedom of speech issue. It’s not a question of oppression. It’s a matter of drawing a line, and saying that violence, the call to violence, and harming people for no other reason than your own hate, isn’t acceptable. An it harm none, do what thou will. Go round trying to cause harm, and there should be no room to demand the tolerance you would deny to others.


Us and Them

I’ve been in too many internet arguments where people have attempted to position me by race and religion – thinking that to side with moderate Muslims is to support terrorism, or that voting one way or the other is anti-British and so forth. The logic of us and them, where ‘us’ is defined by some apparent commonality and ‘them’ by some kind of difference that I find irrelevant.

As Brexit brings out the worst in my country in terms of racism, hate, and twisted thinking, I find I too need the language of us and them. I want to draw my lines in the sand.

Us. Co-operative and willing to negotiate, open to diversity and willing to listen. Inclined to get on with our own things, peaceably and feeling no need to ram our beliefs or lifestyles down anyone else’s throat. Perfectly happy to accommodate anyone else who is quietly getting on with their own thing. Absolutely intolerant of hate, violence and any kind of activity largely designed to make other people miserable and/or force them to conform to some spurious standard.

Them: Driven by hate, greed, fear, resentment. Happy to blame vast swathes of people for the actions of the few, but often not willing to take the action that would curtail the violence of the few (see American gun law as a case in point). Unable to bear difference and wanting to hurt, punish or control anyone not like them. Willing to use violence to this end. Happy to see other humans, other life forms and the planet as collateral damage when it comes to seeing their agenda through. Devoid of compassion and empathy. Likely to announce that they live in the real world and that the rest of us are stupid, naive and need to grow up.

This is not about skin colour. It’s not about who you’d like to rub genitals with. It’s not about your religion or the absence of religion. It’s not about whether you are ill, or well, where you were born, what political party you support or anything else of that ilk. It’s about how you treat other humans, other life forms, and whether you want to co-operate for peaceful coexistence with the peaceful coexisters around you, or whether you want to do it the other way.

If your preference is peaceful co-operation, I stand with you, because the rest is just detail.

If you are all about hurting, damaging, disempowering, killing other people, you are my sworn enemy. I will fight you in every way I can think of – with words, and at the ballot box, with action, with any reasonable means at my disposal, and if you pose a real physical danger to someone, I will do whatever I can to stop you by whatever means are at my disposal at the time. And no doubt as I do this, you will wail about your right to free speech, your human rights, and how you are being oppressed, because you’re quick to co-opt the language of decency to protect your indecency.

But the thing is, tolerance is not the key thing for me, co-operation is the key thing, and co-operation is active, discernible. I’m not tolerating anyone in the ‘us’ camp because I don’t need to. I’m co-operating with them. And I’m certainly not going to tolerate the hate-based bullshit and the whinging used to try and justify it.


Things we do not speak of

I need your acceptance.

I need you to stand in this space with me,

And let your body speak of tolerance, to mine.

I do not always know how to be

In this skin, with these bones.

I need your time, today, now

Because tomorrow one of us could die,

The vital things left unsaid and I need

To speak the unspeakable things with you,

The soul bare vulnerable things that are too much,

Salt tear words, heart words, foolish words,

And the things that can only be said

Palm to palm in the language of skin.

I need to swap funeral plans with you.

Is it reasonable to be afraid of everything

That currently frightens me? Not just me?

I need to speak of grief loss failure apathy,

Hear your awkward stories echo my own.

Sex, politics, toilets, religion, aging, bleeding

Being lost, losing, looser, all the things

It is not acceptable to talk about.

Let us sit in concealing darkness and voice it.

Stand together and be unreasonably real.


Practicing intolerance

It would seem more reasonable to assume that we should be practicing tolerance, with a hearty side-order of peace, love and goodwill. When it comes to recognising that something is merely different, tolerance is a great thing. However, I’ve tried being tolerant in all things, and what it got me was a lot of trouble. So I’m now studying the methods and mechanics of intolerance.

I’m not interested in drama, in upsetting people or causing offence (outside of politics!) so I am not going to manifest my intolerance in ways that will always start fights. That said, if there’s an important cause to stand up for, if I think a person needs arguing with, I’ll pile in. I’ll say what I think needs saying and then do my best to remove myself. I’m not offended by differences of opinion, but I am deeply offended by hypocrisy, flimsy arguments and people who have nothing with which to back up their assertions. “I imagine this and therefore it must be true” is not a line of argument I have any time for.

So far as I know, I only get this one lifetime. Beyond it, there are no certainties, only ideas and beliefs. I am therefore assuming this could be a one shot deal and trying to make the most of it. Time I give to being bored, irritated, upset and frustrated to no discernible purpose, is not time well spent. Every hour that I let someone else suck up with pointless melodrama is an hour I do not get back. Every day I have ruined by dealing with someone who is dependably shitty towards me, is a day I have lost. It is around these issues that I have been carefully and quietly practicing intolerance for some months now.
I’m finding it incredibly liberating. The power to say ‘I do not have to put up with this’ gives me a sense of autonomy. It is my life, and I do have some right to choose. In giving myself the power to discard that which does not suit me, does not please me, does not interest, engage or enrich me in some way, has increased the amount of joy in my life. It’s also freed up a lot of my time. One of the things that offends me is having my time wasted. If I boot out the time wasters, I have more time to deploy where I want it – time for the people who need me, for the people doing fabulous stuff I want to support, for the people I like and whose company I enjoy.

I’ve learned to shrug, walk away and say ‘not my problem’ and that’s such a lovely feeling. Not all problems are automatically my problem. I have the right not to engage. Asserting that protects me from all manner of miserable things. Most of the time I do not formally announce my intention not to participate in something. That can be a way of continuing the problem, not solving it. Time spent telling a person that they make you really unhappy and you don’t want to have to deal with this or that, is actually time spent engaging very specifically with them and inviting more attention from them. I’ve had rounds of people who wanted to spend a lot of time telling me how they can’t cope with me and are upset by me, and who wanted to hold me in a place of being the guilty, useless albatross around their necks. It wasn’t until I realised the power of walking away as a choice I could make, that I also recognised that sticking around to complain about how much of a problem I am (or anyone else), is also a choice. They do not have to stay and I would rather people feeling that way left. Staying specifically to have a problem with me is not a choice I have to respect.

Martyrdom, real or self-constructed, is not a healthy way for anyone to go. A good dose of well-considered intolerance seems to me to be the best antidote to this.


End of an era

Today is the last day of primary school. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was buying his first uniform items and sewing in the name tags. Now he’s a remarkably grown up young fellow, poised to turn into a teenager sometime soon. I remember my own reluctance to give up childhood, soon replaced by a desperate desire to be properly grown up.

The boy has had an unusual sort of childhood, not least thanks to having spent 2 years living on a narrowboat. He’s experienced challenge and betrayal, and learned to negotiate some complex relationships with adults. There were times spent in places where he was an unhappy misfit, unwilling to compromise himself to fit in. And then, the joy of being in a place where his difference is embraced and nurtured. A school where teachers take pride in him, rather than wanting him to change. Accepted and supported he’s become more confident and relaxed, still very much the boy he always was, but now fearless about sharing it. Those deep, philosophical thoughts that he used only to share with me, he can now offer to his peers when the opportunity arises in class. He trusts them not to mock him, he trusts the adults around him to respect him, and to honour his choices and preferences. It’s made a world of difference, resulting in a far happier and far less anxious sort of boy.

I hope, when he’s older, that the last few years will colour his memories of childhood. He’s forgotten much of his early life, which may be as well. I hope he remembers sunny days on the towpath, with his cat. Garden rampages with local friends. Bowling and castles, epic train journeys, piloting the narrowboat and feeding the ducklings. The Wild Fowl and Wetland Trust has given him a glorious range of experiences and opportunities, and a very keen sense of what he wants to be as an adult. He’s handled salamanders, dismantled owl pellets, seen rare wild birds, and learned to tell one kind of duck from another.

In the last few years, the boy has become very tolerant of difference and diversity, conscious that he never knows what other people might have to deal with, or what secrets they might carry. He’s intolerant of bullying and cruelty, a firm believer in equality, and someone who wants fairness but also has a sense of how sadly short of it we are. He’s learned to be a fighter, a crusader, brave, bold and willing to take a stance for justice, be that around badger culls, the Canal & River Trust, or the environmental impact of cars. He stops to get caterpillars, and beetles out of the road, when it’s safe to do so.

And so we come to the end of primary school. The amazing year group he’s been part of will go to four different schools, inevitably losing touch to a degree. They are wild, courageous and extraordinary kids, and it has been a joy to get to know them a bit, and share in their triumphs. They give me hope. We’ve made a lot of friends here, some of whom we should be able to keep. And of course we will be back in the winter, to see the swans.

The end of an era also means the beginning of something new. We know the shape of it a bit, but the details remain mysterious, only to be discovered through living them. We stayed here, and lived on the boat so that the boy could stay in school. I have no doubt that was the right choice. It’s been a challenging way of life, but it has given us so much. We’ve been through some things, recovered from some things, and now it is time to gather up what we learned, and move forward. I have a few more reflective thoughts to work through over the coming days, and there is chaos to come.


Radical inclusivity

There’s a sign up about playground rules at my son’s school. There are all the things you might expect about when to stop, and line up. It also says something to the effect of ‘include in your games any children who are on their own.’ The implications are huge.

When I went through school, the general assumption was that a loner had no one but themselves to blame. If other kids wouldn’t play with you, it was because you were weird and antisocial, and that was fine. Either you learned to fit in, or you stayed out. Children who were crippled by poor confidence, who had not been well socialised prior to school, who didn’t follow the ‘in things’ easily, became exiles. The exiled child readily becomes a scapegoat and a victim, and again when I was a child, picking on the one fat kid, the one weirdo, was considered perfectly normal and no one did anything to stop it. For the record, that would indeed have been me – vegetarian before it was trendy, living without a television, wearing second hand clothes, and with some physical problems that meant I couldn’t run and had little confidence. Oh, and I was, definitively, a weirdo.

My son is, and has always been a bit of an oddball, and has always taken pride in being different. He doesn’t want to look like everyone else, he’s televisionless and does not spend all his spare time playing computer games. Nor does he play football. With his interests in philosophy, green issues and steampunk, he’s not on the same wavelength as his peers. But he’s not any kind of social exile in the way that I was. One of the reasons for this, is that school cultures have evidently changed. There is more onus on the majority to take in and accept the minority. Teaching philosophies around self esteem talk a lot about recognising and celebrating difference. When you get down to it, every child is different. Each one has a unique set of experiences, feelings, needs and intentions.

A system where those outside the boundaries of ‘normal’ are fair targets for bullying or just exclusion, enforces conformity. Those who are ‘in’ are under a lot of pressure to stay in, to be as much like everyone else as possible. That in turn helps to reinforce the boundaries. Those rigid lines between in and out encourage fear and mistrust. Anything different from us is not ok, we should resent it, is the message this conveys. And that attitude plays itself out across the world stage in terrifying and destructive ways.

If you start children with the idea that including people is good and excluding people is not, there is a radical scope for widespread change inherent in that. If you encourage children to accept difference and diversity, you enable them to explore their own natures and not to feel threatened by anything that might make them different. It’s often said that the most aggressive gay-bashers are closet homosexuals afraid of their own natures. Where acceptance is the norm, you just aren’t going to get that kind of fear.

When I was a child, fitting in was the business of the individual, and exiling weirdos was the prerogative of the majority. If that changed, if it became the responsibility of the majority to include, to reach out, to try and understand, to respect the differences, so much would change. And perhaps all it takes to achieve that, is a message on the playground to encourage four year olds not to leave anyone out.


Making Peace

The internet is full of things that will make you angry. Right now, someone is desecrating that which you hold most sacred. Someone is spouting rubbish so unbearable that you will think it dangerous. We can choose to seek out opportunities to be offended and upset, or we can choose to avoid them. In our personal lives, we can choose to dwell on wrongs committed against us, or we can tune them out. We can forgive, or not. At first glance the acts of ignoring would seem like the ones most likely to engender a sense of inner peace. I don’t think this is so. There’s a process to undertake here, and there are balances to strike.

Ignoring wrongs very simply condones them and facilitates their continuing. Turning a blind eye may assist our equilibrium in the short term, but if we are truly being abused in some way – be that by those around us, government bodies, institutionalised prejudice and the like, ignoring won’t fix it or make it go away. Usually the reverse happens. To get to a point of peace it is often necessary to tackle any external sources of difficulty. Sometimes the only option we have is to move away from the source of the problem, but this isn’t always peace-inducing. Leaving a festering pool of wrongness and pollution behind may well create in you a legacy of wondering what was harmed next, or whether it spread. The peace of knowing the problem is truly resolved, is like no other. The future is lining up a few opportunities for me to tackle aspects of my past. I mean to make the best use of them that I can. I want peace, and I want specifically the kind of peace that comes from having sorted things out and done the right things.

When confronting a wrong, it’s important to consider just how wrong it is, and whether it is, really speaking, your problem. If there is litter chocking the stream near your house, then there is something you can do. If atheists fill you with irrational rage, then maybe seeking out the places where atheists go on line in order to keep telling them what the afterlife is going to do to them, isn’t the best idea. There is a difference between tangible harm – being harassed, attacked, showered with chemical poisons from a factory, and taking offence at something someone else does. It’s that old if you don’t like thinking about what gay guys do, just don’t think about it, solution.

It gets tricky at this point because of course certain schools of thinking will understand certain kinds of behaviour as being dangerous and wrong. Someone less liberal than you may consider you dangerous. Part of the problem here is that fundamentalists of all hues (religious, atheist, scientific, political…) often have the belief that they are entitled or required to try and change you for your own good. If we could just let go of that notion of entitlement and requirement, we could solve a lot of problems. By all means, put your version out there, but if others reject it, you are not responsible for that. It is not your job to force it down the throats of the unwilling.

So where do we go with the people for whom climate change is a belief they don’t agree with, not an established fact? And if we say that the voice of sanity must prevail here, how do we handle it when the drug companies demand, claiming the voice of sanity, that all those quack medicines be taken off the market? (for which read herbal remedies and anything they aren’t getting paid for.) In my experience the majority of swords turn out to be double edged.

Sometimes, the answer is not to look outside and blame others for what causes us to feel angry, threatened or mistreated. Sometimes the answer was inside all along. Why should a straight person feel angry and threatened by gay marriage, for example? Work on the inside would be a better approach there for seeking peace. But the other side of the sword lops bits off us instead. If you are being bullied and you start to imagine that the problem is inside you (not an unusual reaction, I gather) then what you do is internalise the bullying, swallow the blame, and there is no hope for peace in that scenario, not without radical change.

True peace requires integrity and self awareness. It requires recognition as to whether the change needs to happen inside us, or outside. To find it, we have to be more interested in getting things right than merely appearing to be right. We have to be willing to change, to let go, to see with new eyes. We need compassionate thinking, both for ourselves and for others. That, I think, is the key. True peace is compassionate. If you are fighting for peace, if you are angry, what you get will not bring peace. Only compassion can do that, and in trying to find a right way through, compassion is your most reliable guide.