16 October 2016 | Scheherazade Khan
Holding different opinions to someone else has, somehow, become offensive. By this, I don’t mean issues such as whether you like your peanut butter smooth or chunky (though it is a topic that can make or break friendships). Rather, at some point, having a different political or social opinion than someone else has become grounds enough to have your whole character condemned.
‘Tolerance’ is one of those words that gets thrown around frequently. But what does it really mean? At the risk of sounding overly academic, I refer to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of tolerance: “the disposition to be patient with or indulgent to the opinions or practices of others.” While tolerance to the “practices of others” is highly emphasised in day-to-day discourse, I feel as though the significance of being “indulgent to the opinions” of others has diminished in our current understanding of tolerance. Instead, there is a tendency to force an ascription to what appears to be the morally correct viewpoint, particularly in a university environment where the majority leaning is decidedly liberal. Yet isn’t this a form of intolerance against the morals and opinions of others?
In situations of political or social opposition, anger appears to be the default mode of political engagement. It is never wrong to be angry about injustice, nor is it bad to vocalise that anger. Some rhetoric, like Trump’s, is just plain antagonistic. However, debates and discussions on real social issues can simply turn into arguments because of an increasing desire to monopolise the moral high ground. An opposing view is considered an attack on the holder’s morality. It is this affront which leads to emotional, rather than rational or critical, responses.
Let’s rewind for a moment and consider why this might be the case. Euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and abortion laws are all examples of issues that continuously incur intolerance from either side. Methods of demonizing alternate perspectives is common, whether by means of citing religious intolerance, or human cruelty as attempts to silence others. Therein lies the paradox: In the attempt to be free of intolerance we vilify and are intolerant to those we believe are themselves intolerant, reducing and potentially eliminating any chance at productive discussions.
Most recently in the United Kingdom the Brexit referendum exemplifies this intolerance. The outcome, deciding to leave the European Union, came to shock to a large portion of the population and has spawned camps of intolerance on both sides. The majority of the people who voted REMAIN were convinced that the population of the U.K. was educated enough to recognize that Brexit was a mistake.
It’s the use of the term ‘educated’ that interests me here. There is an implicit suggestion that if you are educated then your opinions and thoughts would be the same as the majority of REMAIN voters. Additionally, it implies that if you were indeed a LEAVE supporter you were uneducated and ignorant. The result is an inability to enter into a discussion unpacking the, perhaps more terrifying, reality that there may be very educated individuals who came to a researched conclusion based on complex arguments grounded in, for example, nationalism or fear of immigration. All of which are reduced to a blanket judgement of them simply being ignorant.
Similarly in the U.S., supporters of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, have been considered in the same manner. An article from the American online news site ‘The Raw Story’ entitled “A neuroscientist explains what may be wrong with Trump supporters’ brains” attempts to demonstrate how there are some psychological problems occurring that cause Trump supporters to follow him. Again, we see an underlying thought-process strikingly similar to the above view on Brexit, which belittles and insults the intelligence of all Trump voters.
Being intensely anti-Trump, I was tempted to agree wholeheartedly. However, it is, in fact, offensive and in being so, it invites a non-tolerant response. While arguably initiated by often sexist, and racist rhetoric from Trump and his supporters, the response towards them should not be to face fire with fire, lest we risk burning the whole house down. How does society expect to avoid polarizing a whole population to extremes if using such rhetoric? It would not be an exaggeration to say that the aggressive manner in which we quickly dismiss the opinions of those deemed incorrect is rather violent. In doing so we effectively decide that their voice is one that does not need to be heard, eliminating all possibilities of a productive discussion. Moreover, the aggression with which their opinions are condemned works to ensure that holders of different opinions will have no faith that, should they engage in discussion, they would be heard without being vilified. The words of Michelle Obama, “when they go low, we go high”, should be taken to heart as the appropriate philosophy in dealing with opposing opinions.
Maybe the fate of the world does not rest on the ability to coexist with differing peanut butter choices. Nor do I suggest that one should forgive intolerance and bigotry. Rather, to consider whether ignoring, silencing or immediately condemning a person whose views do not match your own may be a form of intolerance and what that might mean for the future of discourse.
About Scheherazade Khan
An alumna from the University of Toronto with a BA (Hons) in English, History and Fine Arts, and undertaking a MSc in Gender and Culture, my interests lie in uncovering the complexities of identity politics in postcolonial fiction. Novels that allow me to dislike the protagonist(s) are my preferred choices.
Article Edited by Aran Ward Sell, Matthew Tibble, and Bridget Moynihan.