21 September, 2014

Beyond Tolerance

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Category: European Action Day, Islamophobia, Peace, Religious Intolerance
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Written by Stevenacular Mahatma


More than a commentary this is an appeal. This is an appeal to all.

The following speaks to everyone; to Muslims, to atheists, to Jews, to agnostics, to believers, non-believers, to Christians, and to sceptics. I could go on but no list would be exhaustive and would only work to make some feel excluded. If you’re reading this, this is an appeal to you.

Whatever our beliefs, tolerance is never enough. The politics of tolerance teaches us to accept others and many of us have gotten pretty good at that. We go about our lives smiling at ‘others’, showing the correct politenesses and extending certain gestures of good will on occasion. But has it been enough? Aren’t we experiencing continuous assaults against minority groups based upon which god they pray to or for their secular approach? Don’t we feel a rising hostility towards those who are labeled as ‘different’ and no amount of pleasantness is diffusing the pressure?

Slavoj Zizek speaks about the politics of tolerance in the following way:

‘Why are today so many problems perceived as problems of intolerance, not as problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, not emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The immediate answer is the liberal multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation: the “culturalization of politics” – political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, etc., are naturalized/neutralized into “cultural” differences, different “ways of life,” which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but merely “tolerated.”‘

What we’re experiencing is the weakness of a way of living which only takes the first step towards community. What ultimately strengthens our resistance against the growth of fascist agendas is not insular ‘in-group’ work and basic courtesies towards ‘outsiders’. We need trans-‘group’ networks. We need to be engaging with each other in meaningful ways which seek to build trust so that our fears can be expressed and fought against. We need to recognise intersectionality (all the ways in which we each have complicated identities which are a mixture of so many things) as something rich and healthy, and whilst frequently tough and hard work, as something which works to help us grow, to evolve, to learn and to strengthen us against xenophobia.

Now I’m sure many of you are thinking, sure, that sounds like a healthy approach but it’s easier said than done. You’re right. Absolutely. It ‘is’ hard, but it is THE ONLY THING THAT WILL WORK. We cannot overcome threats to our individual ‘groups’ if we fail to build relationships with people ‘outside’. We need to recognise that the concepts of religious and non-religious ‘groupings’ are so heavily reinforced that sometimes other commonalities fade into obscurity. We need to recognise that we are also women. We are also children. We are also activists. We are also gay. We are also workers. We are also teachers. We are also students. We are also parents. We don’t fit neatly into only one box. We intersect with each other in many ways. We need to remember this and we need to do so INTENTIONALLY, every-single-day.

The politics of tolerance assists the politics of division. It holds the ‘other’ at arms length and reinforces the boundaries. So often we have become comfortable with emphasising our walls and not the bridges which are built between us. And there are always bridges; we are all human, for a start. Neo-liberal capitalism utilises our ‘differences’ well, it allows us to have the ‘security’ of having our little place in the world, and that sounds pretty appealing when the world is so shitty, right? But the practice of such a politics which only gives us a taste of authentic community fails by selling us a ‘we are all different’ logic, teaching us to reinforce our differences. Such framing builds spaces where we can never have authentic community.

Wendy Brown speaks of tolerance as depolitisation:

‘The retreat from more substantive visions of justice heralded by the promulgation of tolerance today is part of a more general depoliticization of citizenship and power and retreat from political life itself. The cultivation of tolerance as a political end implicitly constitutes a rejection of politics as a domain in which conflict can be productively articulated and addressed, a domain in which citizens can be transformed by their participation.’

Indeed, the love I feel from people with religious beliefs isn’t in the moments when we greet each other and just avoid any possible offensive behaviour (which of course is something), but it is where we make some effort, even take a little risk (like in any relationship building) and acknowledge some of our fears, our misconceptions, our hopes. Our fears often intersect too, as do our hopes and aspirations. It is in these moments that there are grounds for trust and the real potential of sustainable efforts towards reducing hostilities, wherever they may be. By taking risks I’m talking about going beyond our comfort zones and daring to admit we are wrong in a world where we’re taught we have to be right all the time, where we are told if we don’t know something we have to pretend that we do. To be humble is a risk in an arrogant world.

If we can INTENTIONALLY seek out respectful atheist speakers in Mosques, Sikhs in predominantly secular activist networks, agnostics at community events organised by Christians we can undermine the divisions that work to the advantage of those who attack us. Such efforts can also work to dispel myths we all have about ‘others’.

It is trust, empathy and the intentional building of relationships that works.

What we are encouraged to do is to think about the ‘other’ in terms of stereotypes. The simplistic ‘be tolerant’ approach helps here. It doesn’t ask us to dig deeper, to find out where individuals make the reductive labels placed upon them absurd and unhelpful. No, it tells us to ‘be nice’ and we grow no wiser about the lived experiences of ‘others’. The generalisations stick because we haven’t engaged enough to find anything out. This keeps us ignorant and makes propaganda which attacks particular ‘groups’ harder to deny. When we ‘know’ something is bullshit because we’ve made an effort to find out, we can say so!

The approach of intentionally engaging also requires us to do something else. To challenge not what targets us personally, but to interject when ‘others’ are attacked. So often, for example, we are hearing Muslims forced to defend Islam and I find myself thinking, ‘why is it left to the attacked to respond alone?’ Sure enough there are some non-Muslim voices speaking too, but there are not enough. We can build solidarity which shuts down tired pigeon-holing politics by counter-attacks coming from many places, many people!

To hear a religious friend say that Richard Dawkins, an atheist who constantly targets Islam with such hostility, doesn’t represent all atheists is exactly the type of allies we need. As non-believers we can support believers facing vicious attacks and believers can show support for those who do not believe, and various other dynamics between people.

It is crucial of course to remember that we shouldn’t be speaking ‘over’ people directly attacked, marginalised and otherwise discriminated against. In our efforts to interject and oppose oppression we need to be mindful not to silence the voices of those who are the prime targets of attacks. For example this can be men not rushing to support women and in doing so excluding those same people from the conversation itself. If we are doing this we are heaping additional burdens on those we seek to support, rather than trying to alleviate them! When we are allies we work in-support-of, not speaking-for or over-the-top-of.

So, to round up the thoughts here in some practical way, the concept of tolerance just doesn’t go far enough. Tolerance leaves us relaxing in our comfort zones, expecting bonds to be made purely through some liberal notion of politeness. Real politeness is meaningful engagement where you genuinely care about another person’s life, about their experiences, about their struggles. THIS is community. THIS is healthy. THIS is a humanity worth fighting for. Not just smiles and hollow gestures.

Lets intentionally engage and build friendships across divisions imposed upon us!
Lets interject when we hear ‘others’ misrepresented, attacked and discriminated against!
Lets go Beyond Tolerance and challenge intolerance with more than half-hearted efforts!

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