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Tolerance, Condition of Manifestation of Multiculturalism

Ionut Stefan
Last modified: 2021-07-29


One condition of possibility for instituting and constructing multiculturalism is tolerance. Tolerance refers to the behavior of individuals and remains a controversial phenomenon as it presents certain limits and imposes reciprocity. The two standing points in each debate about tolerance are: John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Locke is the one who theorizes the separation of the lay, civil authority, which should deal with the laws concerning the material welfare of man, from the clerical authority, which should deal with the spiritual welfare of people. Locke does not operate a hierarchization among churches and also considers that the two areas should not interfere with each other in a society which wishes to function properly. Locke also makes a quite clear distinction between two concepts: crime (violation) and sin (wrongdoing). The civil authority of the state can only take action in the area of crimes, as these manifest themselves in the public area, while the area of sins would pertain to the private sphere of the individual, where the church can intervene. Mill promotes the liberal model, according to which man should be autonomous and freely express his opinions. He distinguishes between opinions and actions. Actions may have positive consequences and then they cannot be restricted, but may also have negative, harmful consequences and then the intervention of state authorities to put an end to such actions is legitimate. Mill opinionated that the freedom of speech should lie under the sign of a large amount of tolerance, unable to be constrained, because by constraint the authentic dialogue would be blocked. Furthermore, an attitude of censorship of the public opinion reveals the claim to infallibility, and in Mill’s vision, no man can raise such a claim.

                The multiculturalist philosophers John Horton and Susan Mendus object to Locke and Mill’s visions. Locke considered that tolerance should be expanded to all forms of religious belief, but after what happened on September 11th, 2001, such a vision is greatly amended. Another difficulty refers to Mill’s concept of harm (prejudice, wrongdoing meaning injury, damage, loss). It is extremely difficult to reach an agreement because such a notion is axiologically charged, and a possible agreement could only be obtained if the entire mankind embraced a single morality. Another difficulty refers to the separation operated by Mill between “what concerns me” and “what concerns the others”. Such a separation is very difficult to trace because the actions of every one of us may have positive or negative consequences for the ones around us. A third difficulty refers to the manner in which Mill defends the freedom of speech. There are limits within which this freedom of speech may manifest. In the absence of these limits, opinions may cause serious damage or even harm. We all know what happened with Charlie Hebdo or Kirkup’s poem in Gay News.

                Of the most important forms of manifestation of tolerance we quote: the sexual, religious, and racial tolerances. In the case of sexual tolerance, we underline that certain practices may be tolerated, while others should not be tolerated. Homosexuality may be tolerated as long as the partners involved have come of age and freely express their consent to it. Homosexuality has long been considered a crime. Some states consider it a crime even today. The best example in this regard may be Alan Turing, the mathematician who managed to crack the enigma code used by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Turing’s accomplishment was exceptional because it shortened the war and restricted the number of victims. Turing was sentenced for his sexual orientation, because homosexuality was considered a crime at the time in Great Britain, although it should have related to the private sphere of the individual alone. In return, the female genital mutilation or the forceful feeding of the women in Mauritania, in order to make them gain weight, are examples of sexually-oriented practices which should not be tolerated. Religious tolerance was quoted in the argument between monism and pluralism. It is historically significant because the tolerance between the Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe is highly important. A first objection in this case refers to the fact that not only the religious beliefs should have such a privilege, but the other beliefs should benefit from it as well.

                In an attempt to trace the semantic concept of tolerance, Michael Walzer proposes five possibilities of manifestation as an attitude: a) the peaceful, relaxed, relation, like a kind of benign indifference to the various communities; b) acceptance as a kind of resignation for the sake of peace in order to avoid conflicts; c) an attitude coming from some sort of strengthened moral stoicism and of acknowledgement of the fact that others have rights as well; d) an attitude that expresses an openness towards others; e) an attitude that expresses the enthusiastic approval of differences by accepting human diversity.

                One of the most suitable perspectives concerning tolerance compatible with multiculturalism is the one elaborated by David Heyd. He starts from the distinction operated by B. Williams between: a) the necessity to not tolerate immorality (absolutism) and b) the necessity to accept the legitimacy of the different morality (ethical pluralism). There are phenomena which can never be tolerated, such as: cruelty, genocide, first-degree murder, rape, etc. and there are aspects in society which should not raise any sort of issue, such as gender identity (male or female) or racial identity. Heyd considers that tolerance is a perceptive value. We do not tolerate opinions or beliefs and traditions, but people who share specific opinions and traditions. As perceptive value, it may be modeled by a certain education of perception. Hence, the manifestation of tolerance is directly related to the educational system in which the perception of the individual is modeled. Heyd points out the danger in the semantic analysis of tolerance, coming from two opposite directions: absolutism and extreme relativism. Therefore, he does not suggest an exhaustive concept of tolerance in the semantic sector or in the practical sector.