Tolerant – Is the Lib Dem’s favourite word selling them short?

A guest posting from Jen Robertson

Is our favourite word selling us short?

A quick google of the phrase ‘Lib Dem tolerant’ and you get a lot of hits, resulting in quotes like these:

“I will build the open, tolerant, united party that can be the opposition to this Conservative government… Together, we must fight to keep Britain open, tolerant and united.” – Tim Farron (http://www.libdems.org.uk/tim-farron-speech-16)

“Join the Liberal Democrats to help shape a more liberal, tolerant, inclusive society” (https://lgbt.libdems.org.uk/en/)

“The Liberal Democrats are the party that will stand up to the decent British values of tolerance, moderation and generosity.” – Nick Clegg (http://www.libdems.org./only_the_lib_dems_offer_stability_unity_and_decency)

Ignoring the fact someone just tried to claim moderation as a virtue, what I can’t help noticing from these quotes is we do like the word tolerant don’t we? I mean we really, really like it. Arguably even to the point where we’ve tried to redefine it. According to the Lib Dem website:

“Tolerant means diverse, compassionate and generous. We will always fight injustice and stand up for the underdog, the outsider, the individual, the minority and the vulnerable against the powerful.” (http://www.libdems.org.uk/about_our_party)

Unfortunately the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t exactly agree with that, defining tolerant as:

“Showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behaviour that one does not necessarily agree with.” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/tolerant)

Willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behaviour that we don’t necessarily agree with. Well that’s a not exactly negative but it’s certainly a less positive definition than our website is endorsing. I’m certainly open to the idea that language is sometimes a tough thing to place a definitive meaning upon; words mean different things to different people and language is constantly evolving. However I suspect to many people (not least the OED) tolerant falls under the second definition offered here.

If for example you asked me what I thought of a something or someone and I responded by saying “I can tolerate them”, would you think that I felt compassionate and generous towards them? Or that I didn’t really like them that much but was able to be polite to keep the peace?

Tolerance, if you really can’t bring yourself to like and accept someone or something that nonetheless isn’t doing any actual harm, is not a bad thing in its way. It is certainly a welcome step from intolerance. However I am not terribly persuaded that people want to be tolerated. People want to be accepted, they want to be represented, they don’t want your polite (and slightly condescending?) tolerance that ‘allows the existence’ of their different views or ways of living.

Indeed I am not convinced tolerance is actually liberal. It feels like it falls far short of the oft quoted (and oft misattributed):

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” which I have always felt sat at the very heart of liberal philosophy. We don’t tolerate differences and disagreement, we outright encourage it.

All this is building to the fact that I’m just not sure tolerance is the value we should be championing any longer. I was raised at a time when tolerance was considered a wonderful virtue, I remember it being quite a buzzword back then, but a quick overview of the time I was born in might go some way towards explaining that. I was born in a time period when homosexuality was still classed by the WHO as a mental illness, a time when a black woman had never sat in the House of Commons, when a Muslim (man or woman) had never sat in the Commons. Looking back, I was born in a different world. It was also a world before the Human Rights Act of 1998 that sought to incorporate into UK law the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, so in some ways maybe it’s a world we’re set to return to – from what I remember of it I can’t recommend that. I also can’t be comfortable with our liking for ‘tolerance’.

The thing is I don’t think as party we are tolerant, I think we’re better things than that. I think we’re progressive and welcoming and now I’m suggesting we need to take the next step and ditch what rings as outdated language.

What can we exchange ‘tolerance’ for? Acceptance, inclusion, real strides in diversity and representation.

I have a friend who works for the International Slavery Museum and a large part of her job involves teaching people about the legacies of transatlantic slavery, most obviously racism, and working with modern communities living with this legacy. I talked to her about tolerance as a word, running past her how I felt about it and she agreed with me. In her experience ‘tolerance’ was not what people still having to fight for their equal human rights today wanted. They want acceptance and they want to be heard. They want a voice. They want representation.

What’s worse than a party that I know means so well preaching an outdated word like tolerance? Doing it with a parliamentary party that, seemingly through chance, is undeniably lacking in diversity. That we have a female MP now in Sarah Olney is fantastic, but it’s not enough. We need to be championing diversity and representation, not tolerance. In at least some element I’m suggesting we exchange words for action.

I do believe the party is committed to diversity and to acceptance and to the definition of tolerance that I referenced above that’s on the website. I am however concerned that that definition is not what people hear when we keep talking about tolerance and a little bit of me winces when I hear it. There are better ways to talk about these issues. Tolerance may seem like a helpful linguistic shortcut, a quick way of stating our values, but I think that in seeking brevity we risk losing some of our meaning. Personally I don’t think much that we’ve said since in attempts to define ourselves has ever topped the opening sentence from our constitution preamble (very familiar I’m sure to anyone who’s been with the party more than a couple of years as a cut down version of it used to feature on our party membership cards.)

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

(http://www.libdems.org.uk/constitution)

You know what I couldn’t find anywhere in the whole constitution preamble? Any variant of the word tolerant.