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Why Tolerance Is Not a Virtue

What's the Big Idea?

There are not only wrong answers -- there are also wrong questions, says Slavoj Žižek, philosopher and author of Big Think's most recent Book of the Month. And sometimes the way we ask a question obscures the answer. Watch the interview:

For example, "Did you notice how almost automatically we tend to translate issues of sexism, racism or ethnic violence, whatever, into the terms of tolerance?" he says. But tolerance is a value shaped by a particular perspective: "We have different cultures. What can we do? We can only tolerate each other."

The question "Why can't we all just get along?" suggests a particular framework for thinking about the answer. Implicit is the idea that a solution to institutionalized racism and sexism lies in convincing the dominant group to relinquish their biases and share the power.

Never once did Martin Luther King Jr. use the word tolerance in his speeches, says Žižek. "For him (and he was right) it would have been an obscenity to say white people should learn to tolerate us more." The goal of the Civil Rights Movement was not simply appealing to liberal magnanimity, but demanding equity, including economic equity. Tolerance is a request that represents a retreat from that ambitious vision. When King marched on Washington D.C., he didn't say, "learn to live with us." He said, "We're here to cash a check":

One hundred years [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. 

In the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, delivered in solidarity with striking workers during the Memphis Sanitation Strike the day before he died, King addressed the issue of tolerance head-on, saying, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension. It's the presence of justice." In Memphis, he called for non-violence, but he also emphasized the importance of direct action: protest, boycotts, and challenges to the U.S. government.

What's the Significance?

Tolerance is a gift we give each other (or don't). Rights, on the other hand, are inalienable. Distinguishing between the two requires conscious thought. At stake is the difference between reaction and reason, conventional wisdom or a code of ethics. Whenever a question or an issue appears to "go without saying," it's philosophy that helps us understand what is not being said.

Tolerance is one example of conventional wisdom setting the tone for the conversation. Ecology is another. "It’s a terrible crisis," says Žižek, but the way we formulate it matters. We can see it "either as a pure technological problem or in this New Age way – we, humanity, are too arrogant, we are raping the mother earth, whatever, it’s already the way we perceive the question that mystifies the problem. Here philosophy enters correcting the question, enabling us to ask the right question."  

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

 

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