A friend asked me if I thought there was any difference between tolerance and indifference and theorised that tolerance just meant that you didn’t care. Then I heard someone on the radio criticising British society as tolerating this or that and saying that mere tolerance wasn’t enough. We needed to be more embracing of whatever was on her agenda. Race, religion, sexuality….I can’t remember what.
I believe that tolerance is different from not caring and that tolerance is worthwhile in its own right and even imperative.
Living together as tightly packed as we do, sooner or later we will encounter someone who does something which irritates or offends us. Anyone claiming never to be irritated or offended by anything is lying. May be the music is too loud on the train. Maybe we hate that everyone is so quiet on the train. Maybe someone parks on the grass verge or arranges for No Parking notices on the grass verge.
The modern world is full of irritants and to claim that people should just embrace all this is ridiculous. It is a natural reaction to be irritated and offended so the question is: Should we become angry, should we try to embrace everything or should we be tolerant?
In 1987 an American artist named Andres Serrano created a photograph named Piss Christ. The photo depicted a crucifix submerged in urine. My reaction was that this is more of this “Is it art” bollocks which kicked of with Marcel Duchamp’s work “Fountain”. Perhaps the photograph does have merit and I have missed the point but, to be honest, I can’t be arsed to care. As an atheist I am vaguely irritated by such bollocks as I see it as a crass attempt to insult or arouse indignation amongst Christians. However, I shrug and regard this Serrano bloke as a bit of a twat and leave it at that. It does no harm and if Jesus is the son of God then he doesn’t need me to look out for him. Many Christians of course are extremely insulted by this photo and the artist received hate mail and death threats.
Which brings me to today’s news. Someone has made an amateur video, which is suposedly insulting to Muslims, and put it on Youtube. This in itself is an idiotic assertion as there are thousands of videos on Youtube insulting every religion, race, class and every other category of people we can imagine. As Paul Merton said of Madonna while stifling a yawn: “oh, no, we’re being shocked again”.
One Youtube video named “Innocence of Muslims” has caught the eye of the masses in the middle east and they are busy rioting, murdering and destroying premises. Many are also busy shouting racist and violent vitriol, burning the American flag and attacking people who they believe are a bit like the people they think might be responsible for the video. At least one man has died due to this madness. All in the interests of mutual respect you understand.
It is a cliche that travel and communication make the world smaller. It’s not true. The world is as big as it has ever been but travel and communication mean that ideas travel around the world instantly. Technology has enabled people with rigid, entrenched and/or devout beliefs to view material created by people who live on the other side of the world and neither know nor care about their beliefs. If we are dumb enough then we can spend our whole lives being offended and, judging by the comments on Youtube, many people do exaclty this.
The trouble is that our psychology has not kept pace with our technology. We view material online which we regard as insulting and we react as if the material is real and present. It is not. It is mere imagery. It is colours on a screen and noise from a speaker. To misquote René Magritte: “This is not an insult”.
In the modern world more than ever before we need Tolerance. We can all be offended every day if we try, but why try? The Innocence of Muslims on Youtube currently has 26,131 dislikes! Why? Why look? Why even click dislike? We are fools to take offense from a video made by a nobody on another continent who does not matter unless we make him matter. Who, in effect, does not exist unless we recognise him.
When I was young I was pretty much part of a sub-culture of punks and hippies. We railed against “the system” and it’s intolerance of the way we dressed or the music we listened too. We should not be judged by the way we dressed, we complained. Pretty soon I realised that most people within this sub-culture were themselves intolerant of the way other’s dressed and the music they listened to. We sneered at disco and, if a man wore a suit then he was part of the system.
Intolerance still exists in British society. Among right wing bigots of course but, more troublingly, amongst some on the left who promote gay rights and opposition to racism while they yell Fascist at anyone promoting economic austerity or taking pride in Britishness.
The Rolling Stones sang “You can’t always get what you want, but if your try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need”.
In an overpopulated world where different ethnic and religious groups exist side by side we don’t need to love everyone or to be indifferent. We don’t need to give up our deeply held beliefs. We don’t need to compromise or to respect the ideas of idiots. We don’t need to accept cultural relativism or cultural imperialism.
We may all WANT everyone to hold the same values as us but what we NEED is tolerance.
Overall, I think that the British are pretty good at that.