There is little that is more dangerous than the mass dissemination of intellectual vacuity masquerading as profundity. Today’s column in DNA, Let’s Accept, Not ‘Tolerate’, is one such example. Ostensibly about promoting religious harmony, the article uses semantics to obfuscate issues of ethics, theology, and philosophy. The result, not surprisingly, is a bland, motherhood-and-apple-pie-esque piece that the editors at DNA would have done well to screen.
The basic premise of the article is that one must learn to accept rather than merely tolerate people of other faiths. “Tolerance is a compromise, the ability to ‘put up with’ something,” the author writes, chiding, “When you tolerate someone, you don’t make any effort to understand…or appreciate…. Tolerance creates a barrier, which in turn leads to ignorance about one another.” To buttress the argument, the author quotes the Tamil Sangam-era philosopher, Kaniyan Poongunranar: “I am a world citizen and every citizen is my own kith and kin.” The author finishes, “The need of the hour is a paradigm shift in thinking from the now prevailing notion of tolerance of other faiths to the ideal of acceptance of all faiths,” seeing little utility in the “reluctant and condescending tolerance of each other.”
For a short article, it is impressive how many problems it contains. Typical of myopic secularists, in an appeal to open-mindedness, the author asks us to sacrifice our judiciousness. Rather than tolerate, one must now accept – embrace, for that is the implication – the imperfections and morbid practices of not just his/her faith but of others as well. I wonder if one should accept caste discrimination and violence or gender violence; I wonder if one should accept female genital mutilation, honour killings, the treatment of women as chattel, persecution of the unfavourably sexually oriented, the decimation of civil liberties, or religious wars; I wonder if one should accept the rejection of modern medicine to sick people, the refusal to endorse contraception, hackneyed ideas about the origins of the universe in science classes, and the subversive “aid” flowing to poor countries; I wonder if one should accept the segregation of women and their exclusion from society or the enforcement of ludicrous dress codes. Not tolerating. let alone accepting, these customs does not make one a bigot but, in fact, shows one to be an ethical, thinking person.
It is unfortunate that secularism has nowadays come to mean the toleration or acceptance of all manner of perverted behaviour. Part of the reason is that many see ethics as the domain of religion, denying that humanism might even have something to say on the matter. If ethics is a spiritual issue, then there is little by way of logic or reason that may be applied, for all is contained within scripture, any critique of which can be labelled as a phobia. Furthermore, if ethics is a religious inquiry, then surely one cannot judge another faith by one’s own standards! This is convenient to the religious crowd because they can now argue that any system of faith that is judged by foreign standards smacks of intolerance, hegemony, and cultural imperialism, while judging it by its own standards will find it to be fairly consistent and even. Thus, there can be no critique of anything that side of the religious veil.
By no means does this mean an advocacy of religious pogroms or even a call to a philosophical exercise to determine the superiority of one system of belief over another – let us talk ideas, not systems. However, it is quite disingenuous to teach our children one set of values and be seen embracing another in the name of tolerance – acceptance. From a philosophical perspective, religions – their practices and their preachings – can be measured by a variety of values, choice and harm being the most relevant to us, but also, as an academic exercise, metaphysics and law.
A traditional rebuke to such scrutiny is that it still privileges a system, a non-religious one in this case, over another. That is an outright lie. There is much to be found about governance, individual choice, liberty, and civil society in most of the major religions. These were important issues centuries ago too, and theologians and philosophers engaged in vigorous debate over them. There is no reason not to continue those debates today. To think that liberty or civil society was an issue that concerned only the West or only the secular thinker is to accept the hogwash of the religious fundamentalist and the idiot secularist.
Admittedly, this places a heavy burden on the average person who, despite his/her best intentions, may have neither the time nor the resources to investigate various faiths and their philosophical intricacies. This is all the more reason that newspaper columnists should show a little more nuance in their discussion of important issues. Beating on columnists aside, the message in the public sphere ought to be one of grudging physical tolerance of people and an outright rejection of the barbaric ideas that are allowed to parade as religion. The common man is not so ignorant as to not perceive the mood, and hopefully, will imbibe a sense of the argument even if not the sophistication to repeat the exercise him/herself – as experiments on capuchin monkeys have shown, a sense of justice is finely ingrained into not just humans but many animal species.
Finally, if some ideas are so repulsive, why not excise them from the body politic? Ah, but such is the language of reigns of terror! Countering irrationality wherever it occurs, rejecting ideas that curtail liberty, not accepting the tyranny of one sect, gender, or group over others in the name of political correctness, making heinous acts such as child marriage illegal, are all little ways of rejecting without violence. And why should one be so gentle? Because violence begets violence, is unproductive, is a surrender to baser animal urges, is illegal. and most importantly, the numbers say it is too late short of genocide. So instead of platitudes, please, I urge you, dear readers…use reason. You’d be surprised at how quickly the detritus withers away (at least from your immediate circles).
PS: I apologise for the unevenness of this post – I was quite irate at the DNA article and it is late in the night. Fully explicated, the discussion should have entailed Aristotle, Plato, Maimonides, and Spinoza (because they are the most relevant of the ones I know well).