Opinion: Tolerance

POSTED: 10/17/12 5:12 PM

Tolerance is in St. Maarten a word that is quickly associated with the police and its Zero Tolerance team. Nobody ever thinks about being tolerant to a neighbor, or a random passer-by who happens to come from a different ethnic background.

The Netherlands has long been the world capital of multiculturalism, but the system is seemingly walking on its last legs. The opinion that multiculturalism is dead is steadily gaining momentum. That’s not handy in a country populated with a rich variety of ethnicities.

We experience all this on a smaller scale in St. Maarten as well. One would think that St. Maarteners, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Dominicanos, and Haitians all belong to that group we like to call Caribbean people but on the ground there is not always that feeling of togetherness.

In the Netherlands the situation has now deteriorated to such a point that Sire – a foundation for non-commercial advertising – has made a TV-commercial about tolerance.

And from that commercial we learn that “tolerance is no longer obvious in the Netherlands” – while this has long been something some people would cynically call a fixed belief. (Politicians could not get enough of tolerance and immigrants, while citizens in low rent housing were faced with a different reality).

Sire’s TV-commercial shows a man walking around with a white box that bares the word tolerance. Then he says: “Other opinions, cultures, habits – you are open for it. Due to tolerance you meet new people, so that you sometimes eat something different, you discover new rituals, a nice hobby or you go through unexpected experiences. By using tolerance you get in touch with all the wonderful things our country has to offer.”

This statement is supported by images from an Islamic celebration dinner, a Jewish wedding dance, a farmer’s party, a pink cabaret and a Turkish wrestling match.

Maarten Neuteboom and Evert Jan Slootweg, two associates of the Scientific Institute note in an op-ed in the Volkskrant that Sire’s message is clear: tolerance brings us prosperity and happiness. But they add that the commercial is missing the point, in spite of its good intentions. Why is that?

Hmm, the word tolerance comes from the Latin tolerare which means enduring or holding out. To tolerate somebody or something is therefore not as easy or fun as sire suggests. Neuteboom and Slootweg wrote that others have already indicated that a feeling of disapproval, objection or even condemnation precedes and accompanies tolerance.

And what do we learn from this? Tolerance means that you accept practices you reject and that you do not attempt to ban them, the authors say.

So if the churches in St. Maarten were tolerant, they would accept lifestyles they disapprove of and not make any attempts to ban them. Interesting, isn’t it?

Neuteboom and Slootweg say that indifference or approval of exotic parties is not a form of tolerance, but in a way the opposite. With such an attitude, people do not endure anything, because it does not disturb them. Tolerance is not about a ban on judgment, but about the question which consequences we link to that judgment.

Tolerance is therefore also linked to the question whether a tolerant person has the power to change what he disapproves of. If there is nothing you are able to do about it, it is a case of resignation. Self-interest should not be the driving force behind tolerance, but esteem, respect or mercy. Tolerance asks a bit more from us; it takes an effort and it does not happen on its own.

All this does not appear from Sire’s well-intended TV-commercial, Neuteboom and Slootweg write. Who disproves of a Jewish wedding dance, a farmer’s party or a Turkish wrestling match? Is somebody who does not like couscous, the cloggy-dance or Turkish wrestling intolerant?

And if some in the Netherlands disapprove of an Islamic celebratory meal or a pink cabaret, do they have the power to change anything? These are all hardly controversial practices that do not disturb people in their daily lives and therefore do not have to be tolerated. Tolerance goes beyond the pure self-interest like eating something different, going through unexpected  experiences or discovering interesting hobbies.

Intentionally or unintentionally Sire creates the idea that tolerance has something to do with cosmopolitic broadmindedness and that intolerance has something to do with petty bourgeois narrow-mindedness.

If it is about the importance of tolerance it is necessary to put the finger really on the sore spot, Neuteboom and Slootweg observe. Why not a video about ritual slaughtering? Or a shot where a rabbi or an imam based on his religious beliefs does not shake hands with a woman? Why not an image of an conscientious objecting civil servant or of a gay couple walking hand in hand through the streets of Amsterdam?

Images that will cause an uneasy feeling with a part of the population but that they will have to deal with in a pluralism society. Situations that we are able to change through legislation or the government or in another way, while we also have the option to choose to tolerate those situations based on respect for the other and his freedom to adhere to a different set of values, belief or lifestyle. Even if we find that very uncomfortable or painful because we have a completely different opinion.

A political-social debate about the meaning of tolerance means that we have to discuss tolerating what the mainstream considers the less appetizing sides of religious and ethnic minorities. Tolerance is under pressure because the majority, based on values it finds important, considers minority opinions less and less, even though these opinions belong to the basic democratic freedoms. It is incomprehensible that Sire is unable to tackle this. That is because it would turn into politically charged topic, even though the question what we tolerate from each other is charged anyway.

When we evade the real painful issues and embrace the wrong idea of tolerance the concept threatens to be undermined. What we’ll get is a moral of fake-tolerance whereby tolerance is brought down to having immigrant friends, eating Mediterranean snacks or walking around a year market on clogs.

If we do not name where things are difficult in our society we talk each other into a feel-good feeling. Maybe that explains why 96 percent of the people in the Netherlands describes itself as tolerant, while minorities experiences ever less freedom and tolerance.

That does not mean we should not have a debate about the limits of tolerance. But such a debate only makes sense if there remains space to tolerate something from each other  and we do not quickly go over to prohibiting something we do not appreciate.

It’s an interesting thesis and worth considering by, say, our Minister of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports. Because in all four of these fields, real tolerance instead of zero tolerance could give our young country the boost it so badly needs.

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