What is "Active Tolerance" ?

Our society lives in fear of conflicts, so much so that it proclaims itself “tolerant”. In principle we accept all opinions, we walk alongside, but not see, one another, and we think this attitude of “Everyone’s entitled to their opinions” will guarantee us peace.

The Failure of Tolerance

In Europe we want to attain universal tolerance, but I fear that we are not on the right path. Our codes of political correctness — which, on the one hand, condemn writers who are supposed racist, or films deemed blasphemous, and so forth — and which, on the other hand, celebrate diversity in all its exoticism and seductiveness — have not led to the “togetherness” so much sought after. On the contrary, intolerance seems daily to gain in power: racial violence from L.A. to Amsterdam, graffiti of Mosques, manifestations of anti-Semitism and homophobia, — the list is sadly long.

We attempt to pacify tensions with “respect”. “Respect one another”, we are told in all the capitals of the world. “Respect”, however, is but a word that most often prevents us from progressing, and that hides behind it a imaginatively poor relativism. Am I really called upon to “respect” a vision of the world that I do not share, that I consider false or even dangerous? We must disassociate respecting each other’s dignity as human beings, and respecting opinions, for these are two very different things, and may indeed be in opposition to one another. For if I truly respect my fellow human, when I consider him to be wrong, or his religion to be an illusion, or his atheism to be destructive, it is rather my duty to tell him so. Is not the very heart of philosophy’s task to establish this confrontational dialogue, which is respectful precisely because of its intellectual intrusiveness — because of its refusal to go tiptoeing around “the other”, its choosing instead to seek him out at all costs?

This is the only way for true change to be created, for it won’t be by shouting together at a World Cup final, or by dancing next to each other like strange robots carried away by a wave of music…

Intolerance cannot be fought at the superficial level of lives and minds. The xenophobe is not racist because he didn’t eat couscous one evening with his neighbors, or because he didn’t go to a club with racially diverse friends. The fundamental Islamist is not an enemy of the West because he doesn’t have a portable phone, or because he’s been deprived of cable. On the contrary, one might know people superficially, rub shoulders with them, and reject them. The intolerant person adopts an existential rejection, one that cannot be overcome by superficial means.

What is active tolerance?

It’s a matter of understanding that we are heading toward a breakdown, this being confirmed by numerous polls showing the rise of distrust in western countries — notably distrust of minority communities.

The sole force that can oppose intolerance is active, radical tolerance, which we must (re)invent; a tolerance that doesn’t make merry, that doesn’t avoid conflict, that doesn’t “respect” opinions, and that doesn’t protect ideological comforts.

So what will this active tolerance demand of us?

– To not respect opinions, but to discuss them — with an unlimited right to criticize. There’s no sense in sparing religions in the name of some sort of “respect”. Conversely, we consider that the other is respectable principally in so far as he is reasonable and able to understand my arguments, and also teach my something, — and perhaps to make me change my mind on certain points. This includes the “Islamist fascist”, the “Zionist”, the “fundamentalist Catholic” or “puritanical Protestant”, that is all those whom we don’t like and to whose vision of the world we object.

– To perceive that it will not be by denial of the problems or emotional communion that we will pacify tensions. Buried ideological conflicts will resurge sooner or later; groups inspired by antagonistic visions of the world often tend to move toward civil war or to break off into their own closed communities. Nevertheless, this kind of statement is not new, American neo-cons have not invented it to justify their political power; Socrates and the first philosophers recognized the danger, which shouldn’t confirm the Huntington thesis of the “clash of civilizations”, but rather the reasoning of philosophy. The only alternative to violence is to lay flat the divergences, to discuss them, to organize debates of the questions that provoke anger, whether these be of the different conceptions of secularism, the injustice of relations between the north and the south, nuclear energy and diminishing oil resources, abortion or any question that involves an important societal choice.

– To refuse to put out of bounds intolerant people and these new sophists that populist political leaders have become.

Is not a tolerance that will not abide intolerance, that essentializes intolerant people and makes them out to be demons, refusing to try to understand their arguments, simply plunging into the irrational? With whom shall we argue, if not the intolerant people? To desire a world populated only with tolerance, would be to exacerbate the mutual incomprehension. It is a matter not only of fighting intolerance in its various forms, but of fighting it loyally, rather than with clichés. Racists and fascists are generally characterized as dehumanizing the Other, — we mustn’t adopt the very method that we reproach them for. This means that if we want to contest Jean-Marie Le Pen, we must know his program, not just the slogans we hear of him; and if we want to rise up against Islamic extremists, it is essential that we explore their actual conception of the world — beyond the media’s commonplaces — and study their most eminent thinkers. It is far too facile to reproach the Israelis and the Palestinians for not making peace, when we ourselves refuse to dialogue with our enemies or with those we consider of bad faith, even though we are not — not yet? — suffering the intense pressure of a wartime climate. We are hardly able to give others lessons in “dialoguing” when we everywhere refuse to take on the views of extremists.

But, one might argue, “fascists” and “fundamentalists”, by definition, are those who refuse critical discussion. Is this really so? Are we not falling victims to our dear clichés?

Certainly, enemies don’t have any reason to want to conform to good feelings; many groups, yesterday in the name of political ideology, today in the name of religious fundamentalism, reject non-violence and democracy. Dialogue is not necessarily a shared value. But who would therefore remain in error? Who would therefore accept to shrink away from the search of the Truth? At bottom, it is a matter of rehabilitating a preeminent human value. The search for truth is today as important as ever; its demand is a priority; and we can all on anyone, were it even a religious or political extremist, to respond to the call. Active tolerance braces itself upon this aspiration that is inscribed in the center of the human, in order to give him or her a concrete form that makes sense in the contemporary world.

But before succeeding in beating the extremists, it seems that the open democrats, the republicans and the antiracism vigilantes must also take control of the extremist that resides in themselves, and that wants rub away intolerant people from the surface of the Earth, rather than discuss with them.