A few months ago I was invited to give a talk at the London School of Economics as part of a day-long conference ‘Beyond Tolerance: Citizenship, Diversity, Constructive Conflict’. The conference had been organised in the wake of the Brexit and Trump vote in an attempt to understand how the polls and political climate could have so misjudged the outcome of both elections. Was there something else we needed to understand about how ‘the other’ thinks that will help us to build bridges?
The conference was a fascinating and inspiring look into the extraordinary initiatives that exist to break down barriers between people and included speeches from notable changemakers, academics, social entrepreneurs and business people on the work that they are doing to counter polarised viewpoints in their own communities and society at large. I gave an impromptu theatre workshop on the importance of understanding our role as leaders in our individual spheres to challenge our perceived ‘status’ and power in affecting change. I argued that we each one of us have the right and responsibility to ‘lead’ others in a better way of seeing.
The conference really made me consider what it meant to go ‘beyond tolerance’. It has become fashionable in the circles of the so-called ‘liberal elite’, those who do not share the Brexit or Trump worldview, to believe it is necessary to dig deeper in understanding the world view that could have brought about such a profound upheaval in the political landscape. In the interests of getting outside of our ‘echo chambers’, it is believed necessary to empathise with and consider the points of view that created such a turnaround in the status quo.
I have always believed that it is necessary to appreciate a multiplicity of viewpoints and, indeed, have built my own work (www.carolinewatson.org) in solidarity with those who feel underrepresented in society and within systems that treat people unfairly. I am grateful that I feel equally comfortable with ‘kings and paupers’ and believe that we should never cease to challenge our biases and opinions.
But I do not believe that we should ever question our inbuilt sense of what is right and wrong. No form of hatred, discrimination, bigotry or violence – whether in thought or deed – is ever acceptable and our determination to be ‘tolerant’ of other’s viewpoints should never blind us towards the rightful condemnation of behaviour that hurts or harms another. Love is supreme.
It seems to me that our current discourse in the political arena needs to go above and beyond ‘tolerance’ of other viewpoints. Let’s call a spade a spade. Anything that is not love is, quite simply, fear, and has no place in the world as it has evolved until today. We need to be ever vigilant that ‘tolerance’ does not act as a smokescreen towards behaviour that debases both the victim AND the perpetrator.
No matter which side of the political spectrum we sit on we cannot attack others, deny them from speaking their own truth nor collude with a viewpoint that sets up hatred and division – even if, perhaps especially if, we believe we are on the side of right. We need to continue to have faith in the ability of each individual to recognise good and express only love, not fear, or reaction. Critically, we need to see this even in our foes, not just our friends. We need to uphold a higher standard and expectation of how even those whom we did not vote for will make decisions and even govern and not be afraid to call them out on this, secure in the knowledge that each individual can and does know how to lead from a place of love, not fear.
In his fascinating book, ‘Defying Hitler’, Sebastian Haffner, an ordinary German citizen, documents the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s and the gradual and insidious ways in which the German people came to accept the atrocity of the Holocaust. Time and again throughout the book, Haffner clearly identifies that issue as a spiritual deficit that even started to convince Hitler’s original opponents to collude with the regime. This is not a spirituality that has anything to do with religion, rather, a moral corruption and decay in society that systematically went unnoticed and, therefore, unchallenged. We need to be clear about the true ‘enemy within’.
‘At that time I had no strong political views. I even found it difficult to decide whether I was ‘Right’ or ‘Left’….what saved me was – my nose. I have a fairly well-developed figurative sense of smell, or to put it differently, a sense of the worth (or worthlessness!) of human, moral, political views and attitudes…..As for the Nazis, my nose left me with no doubts. It was just tiresome to talk about which of their alleged goals and intentions were still acceptable or even ‘historically justified’ when all of it stank. How it stank! That the Nazis were enemies, my enemies and the enemies of all I held dear, was crystal clear to me from the outset’. (p86)
I’ve thought about this in my own life, when conflicts arise and my natural proclivity is to pause and examine how my own thinking might have invited the conflict to arise. ‘Was it something I said or did? Have I failed to see the other point of view? Is there something I’m missing here?’ Humility is a strength and we all have much to learn and grow but I do believe that we all of us know that murder, whether of literal human life, or even the insidious assassination of ideas, dreams, the hopes of others, the integrity and dignity of our fellow man and woman, is wrong. We don’t need to be tolerant of viewpoints that have their basis in isolationism, an over inflated sense of human or national identity, or a lack of compassion for others.
We must all refuse to be intolerant of anything that defaces and dishonours the higher nature of man that is within each and EVERY one of us.