Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Roots II – Tolerance

Motto: A civilized society is one which tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity – Robert Frost

Wikipedia defines tolerance as ‘the practice of permitting a thing of which one disapproves, such as social, ethnic, sexual, or religious practices’.

Wikipedia also defines the very paradox of intolerance - a tolerant person might be antagonistic toward intolerance, hence intolerant of it. The tolerant individual would then be by definition intolerant of intolerance. It is almost like a circular reference in Excel.

I remember a Romanian joke about tolerance in a marriage: she tolerated his promiscuous behavior, he tolerated her promiscuous behavior, and therefore they were leaving together in a tolerance house (Romanian synonym for red-light house).

I will have to take you back to the end of introductory post (Roots), just for continuity sake.

Tolerance is praised nowadays as one of the key pre-requisite to globalization, communication and mutual understanding between all people, as the ultimate virtue that must be universally practiced in order to get everything in good order. Of course that ‘good order’ in the view of tolerance is that I would let you do whatever you want, even thou I disapprove and it is wrong as per my standards. Alternatively, being intolerant means I try to stop you and inflict my view of right and wrong upon you, which would be breaching your basic human rights. Tolerance is the twin sister of freedom, one of the 3 basic human rights born during the French Revolution (together with equality and brotherhood).

In other words, I am free to do as I please, you MUST be tolerant and let me do it. Or… I am free to do as I please, you ARE NOT FREE to choose if you want to tolerate this or not. Well… we already have a breach of one’s basic human rights.

Let’s go one step further. Tolerance does not seem wrong as a basic concept; however it is a fine line between tolerance, acceptance and practice. And this is where Pandora’s box opens, because history has shown that things that are initially forbidden are first practiced in secrecy, then bashfully tolerated, then more and more brought to public knowledge, gradually accepted and finally turned into normal habits for bigger and bigger part of the population.

I perceive our own education towards tolerance as one of the biggest roots of current crisis. Everybody gets his or her unique perception about good and bad through the basic education in the family, and is permanently further modeled by own personality, circle of friends and own experience. Personal level of tolerance is influenced by many factors – from character to context, circle of comfort and instinct of survival (sometimes it is purely dangerous to be intolerant), perception about own dignity and basic rights, protection and love (we can be very tolerant when it comes to ourselves but extremely intolerant when it comes to threats to our children or loved ones).

In general we have became more and more tolerant with the bad things around us, we choose more and more to create and protect our own microenvironment, assuming that as long as we do not bother other people they would not bother us. We tolerate bad service and rude behavior, bad management and corrupt politicians, expensive but low-quality service. Even more, it seems to me that we tend to tolerate more frequently exactly those things that we can actually change (maybe not easily but still… within our power); but we are too lazy or too afraid or plainly not motivated to do so. We look so often for personal gain in the things we do, that we have almost forgot to do things just for the simple reason of being right and proper. On the other hand, we are quick and loud in publicly showing our disappointment and “intolerance” either towards petty little things that do not matter or towards exactly the opposite- major global problems, which we know will not be changed simply by our manifest of intolerance (actually what I am doing now would fit into this latest category, right?...)

What does this have to do with the roots of the global crisis? Well, potentially everything. In the first part I was commenting about Eastern (ex-communist) countries and Western (traditionally capitalist) ones. I had some comments from an exceptional American reader that made me read my first post again, as he seems to have picked something in-between my lines. His perception was that I was somehow accusing the Western world from dispersing the “morale rot plague” through the Eastern world. I have to say it is far from me to say anything like that. I would say that on both sides of the Berlin Wall people have learnt in the long period of Cold War to tolerate different things and not tolerate others and when then came in contact with each other the diplomatic approach was to tolerate everything just to preserve the newly gained contact.

To cut it short: the root of current world evolutions seems to me that lies within the clash of very different civilizations. Kind-of-Babylon city only that this time the stage is the whole world and there are almost 7 billion actors. We all preach the path of tolerance, but the huge diversity does not allow us to make the further natural step towards acceptance or the even bigger step towards uniform practice. We however inflict on each other every day things that we do not believe in, until the comfort line is crossed. And I am not referring now only to race & color, religion & belief, culture & history, tradition & habit, value & morale, social & political systems etc.

I remember one of my University teachers who asked us why we think there is no movie about the life of a normal teacher that studies, gets married, has children and teaches other people until retirement and then goes to a village and enjoys the silence and flowers and family for the rest of his life. The answer was: because this is such a normal life pattern that would be boring for anyone to watch. But take a 2-hour action-movie and try to live at that pace everyday for one year. You will not make it and will not want to hear another action story in your life again. You will want to go to the village and retire and forget about business schemes, secret lives, complicated intrigues and painfully twisted love stories.

Maybe he is right, maybe the true lies somewhere in the middle – one month of adventurous vacation and then one year of normal life would be just fine for most of the people.

Coming back to the topic, diving into diversity as a challenge and using tolerance as a survival tool may be challenging and nice as an occasional case-study, touristic attraction or movie scenario, but not for everyday living over extensive period of time. At a certain point you have to withdraw into a circle of comfort and get a normal life.

And for this purpose we create family and friendship circles, long term commitments and self-satisfactory set of values on individual levels. While on social level, we empower other people to take care of those other things, which we presume should be “ensured” with our money and our vote. It is part of our human rights; however if we do not break out of our circle of comfort from time to time, to exercise control and corrective measures on those mandated people, in the long run we will have no guarantee that they fulfill their tasks. Because the basic human nature will teach them to take the easy ways out.

When a child does something wrong (and is caught), he/she is punished by the parents until he/she learns how to behave. When a mature individual does something wrong (and is proved guilty), the punishment should come – from the justice system set by the society. When a social group does something wrong (and is publicly disclosed), the usual punishment is marginalization or even extinction of that group from social life. When a society does something wrong … it is very hard to expose and even harder to correct.

Today I feel quite optimistic, so I would like to believe no matter how deep the roots of the moral crisis we are facing, we will sooner or later get our heads above the water again. We will not be able to put all the bad things back into Pandora ’s Box, as the idea of reversing the global trends is not just impossible to implement, but also completely insane even to try. We will just have to find a way to adapt and survive. And the great news I have today is that we are so easily adaptable!

There is just one question ahead: to what should we adapt?

We should stop believing in the perfect country with the perfect people, the perfect economy and the perfect social and political system. We are all so predictably human and at the same time so predictably different, that we have to start understanding and appreciating diversity of civilizations and societies just as much as we praise ourselves that we appreciate diversity between individuals.

After all, societies are also living animals and we have to respect their power and stop inflicting our distorted expectations on them. We just have to find the right balance between tolerance and its paradox, decide for ourselves and for our surrounding where should one start and the other one begin, within the boundaries of the platinum rule (which you may find described here).

Until next time, I promise to stay tolerant within the boundaries of sanity, while wishing the same for you.

Georgina Popescu

1 comment:

  1. Dear Gina.
    again you wrote an excellent balanced smart paper, thanks!
    It will have success, I know.
    I have told recently that intolerance kills people but tolerance destroys the society. see he British and the German riots.
    See the tacit acceptance of the fact that organized criminality exists, commerce with drugs is florishing, football fans are violent, corruption, theft, scams are not readily punished, our politicians are getting rich fast, rich people are admired and can do what they want..greed is good (?)
    Multiculturalism does not work as long some cultures are based on parasitism or violence.
    I don't say that applying sharia or going back to dictatures would be better I don't know if these problems have Solutions. Great changes are necessary but what will they be exactly, I don't know again.Perhaps the excesses of tolerance and of
    intolerance have to be stopped, both.