Please don’t sue me for talking about tolerance – Part 1

13 August 15Culture

This blog is part one of two looking at the idea of tolerance in Australian society.

A few years ago the former Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen appeared on ABC’s Q&A. One of his fellow panellists was the comedian Catherine Deveny. At one point in the debate Jensen was asked about tolerance. As part of the debate Deveny exclaimed that the only thing she was ‘intolerant of (was) intolerance.’ In the context of the debate Deveny appeared to be saying I am only tolerant of those who have the same opinion as me. Anyone who disagrees with me is intolerant and I therefore don’t have to tolerate him or her.

At the time this struck me as a contradiction. Isn’t tolerance the act of recognising and respecting others beliefs or practices without necessarily agreeing or sympathizing?[1] Tolerance is the act of putting up with things you may not agree without authoritative interference or molestation.[2]

As I read the paper, watch TV and follow debates on social media I can’t help but think that tolerance in Australia is understood in the way that Deveny understands tolerance. That is, in Australia it seems that tolerance is no longer understood as bearing with one another without necessarily agreeing. More and more I feel that in Australia tolerance is agreeing. If you don’t agree we me you are intolerant. It closely follows that as you are intolerant you are written off, your arguments are invalid and you lose your right to join in the debate.

As Christians we are called to love one another. Surely this love involves bearing with others even when we disagree. This bearing with one another in love is an idea into which tolerance can fit.

Now there are many things in society that in love we should not tolerate. We shouldn’t tolerate things such as domestic violence, child abuse and blatant racism. But as a society we thrive on diversity. We are not a homogenous unit. When I was going through school there was a mural on the wall of the playground celebrating multicultural diversity. Multiculturalism was built on the idea that we are all different. We have different cultures, we have different ways of doing things and different belief systems. I may not agree with all aspects of a belief system but I don’t have to. I just have to tolerate them. I show the people who hold these views the respect they deserve as human beings but I can’t deride them as being wrong just because I don’t agree. For example if my Muslim friend maintains that I am going to hell because I don’t follow Mohammed it is ok to disagree with them. They disagree with me because I believe that I am going to heaven because Jesus died on the cross for my sins. My friend doesn’t agree with my opinion and I don’t agree with theirs but I respect and recognise these differences without persecution or molestation.

My perceived lack of tolerance in society must have implications for so many aspects of our day-to-day lives. Surely a lack of tolerance impinges on our right to free speech? How can I speak freely about anything if I know before I even open my mouth that my views will not be tolerated and immediately derided?   Doesn’t a lack of tolerance completely undermine the principles of democracy?

Does our lack of tolerance mean that our politicians are acting out of fear rather than making good policy decisions? Surely fear is not a solid foundation for good policy decisions.

Does the lack of tolerance inhibit us from speaking freely on social media? There are many debates that I would like to engage in but don’t for fear of being torn apart.  The lack of tolerance on social media is in some cases deplorable.

In the end does a lack of tolerance ultimately effect how we treat other human beings? Through intolerance do we deprive other people of the freedom to express their views and opinions.   Doesn’t this rob our communities of depth and dignity and love? Christians are called to do more than tolerate. We are called to love one another. We are called to love even when we disagree. We are called to do what I perceive Deveny didn’t do, that is to speak in love and respect those with whom we disagree.


P.S If you would like to read more Don Carson has written a very helpful book on this issue entitled The Intolerance of Tolerance.

[1] Webster’s unabridged Dictionary

[2] Oxford English Dictionary