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.

Angry & Intolerant – A response from someone who knows me well

My recent posting regarding my own anger and intolerance over Brexit brought back this insightful response:-

Anger can be a useful tool if it can be directed, it can fuel difficult actions and hard campaigns. As long as you have control of it a little anger can take you a long way, sometimes further than you thought you could make it.

I don’t think Anger is an inherently bad thing, there are things that SHOULD make us angry. You are angry not because you got beaten but because you watched too many members of a generation who won’t be around to see the consequences of their vote to make life harder for their grandchildren, because you saw vulnerable people lied to and exploited, manipulated into voting for something that won’t benefit them in the least. In their case the anger they were entitled to feel at the neglect of the system got used by someone else, perhaps partly in fear of those people directing their anger towards the right targets and the people that had consistently failed to help them, or worse still failed to really try.

You are angry because there has been a backlash of hate, of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, the list of rising hate crimes is too long to go on with. You are angry because a young woman trying to work for her community got savagely murdered in the streets.

You SHOULD be angry, we should ALL be angry, but anger is only useful if we direct it into purpose. This may be the biggest threat to our country, to the liberal values you and I both hold dear, in a very long time. It should be fought. Tolerating other people’s views doesn’t mean you stop fighting them when you think they’re wrong. It means you fight them in the right way, that you don’t stoop to name-calling, to slurs and intimidation. You treat them with the respect owed to all human beings while fighting against the effects of their views and trying to convince them they are wrong. That’s where anger starts to get in the way, you don’t change anyone’s views by shouting at them.

We need to remember that more important than politics, than economies, than anything, is our relationships with our fellow human beings. Events like this make us want to retreat to the safety of those that agree with us, make us want to get behind a barricade and throw projectiles at the enemy but that isn’t really going to help anybody. Martin Luther King quite rightly said “hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”.

We need to be careful about indulging in some feeling of moral superiority and feelings of blame, how we got here is important but how we move forward is even more so. All far easier to say than to do, but I grew up with a good example of all this so somehow, occasional shouting aside, I think you’ll do just fine.

Well, it seems like I could consider an apology to those I have insulted over the Brexit vote following this advice. But, I will have to sit on that for a while as the anger is still very strong and the full consequences of that vote are unknown. Put it this way, if my genuine fears about the future of the UK prove to be unfounded and that Brexit ‘visionaries’ were right in saying leaving the EU will be the making of the UK then maybe I will apologise. However, based on the evidence that I saw before the referendum and what I have seen since I still can’t understand why Brexiters pressed what I see as the self-destruct button. Yes, still very angry indeed!

Me angry and intollerant?

The other day a friend, whom I appreciate the advice of, said to me that they had noticed how angry some of my postings had become since the EU Referendum result. They went on to say words to the effect that my usual tolerance of views differing from mine own seemed to be a little lacking presently.

Well I suppose that’s a reasonable assessment of me. I don’t think I have ever felt so angry about an issue of public policy as I do about the EU Referendum result and yes I have become very intolerant of people who promote leaving the EU. With tolerance being a fundamental tenet of being a liberal am I becoming illiberal? Makes you think doesn’t it.

I don’t think I have ever feared for the future of our country as I do now, we seem to be fundamentally unstable economically and socially. Hate is on the rise, some elements of the press are completely out of self-control, our economy is in a real mess and our attitude to minorities and refugees is utterly frightening. I would say that in a short space of time we have become fearful, inward-looking, mean spirited and intolerant as Country and it is this sea change that has in turn made be angry and intolerant.

It is not the country I grew up in and I want my tolerant, welcoming Country back.

But the other thing my wise friend had to say was that they feared I was venting some of my anger at a section of society whom I perceived had voted in a way that made them look foolish, irresponsible etc. The point being made, I think, was that the people I was angry with had been manipulated over many, many years to the point where the propaganda against the EU, refugees, the poor etc. had become the truth to them.

This later point is interesting in that what was being suggested to me was that just because I try to take an analytical approach to most issues many people don’t. I actually get that and my posting of a few days ago about being lied to addressed this. It is available via the link below:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2016/11/10/why-do-we-allow-ourselves-to-be-lied-to/

And the point of all this? Well I think the advice was stop shouting at folk who have been manipulated by the press, the wealthy and the powerful and try to convince them that hate and fear does not actually help society develop but instead corrupts it terribly. I wonder if I can rise to that challenge when the anger inside is so strong as we seemingly march towards becoming a fascist state?

Can’t promise I will not shout again as sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me sane, but I do get that being a Liberal means I have to try to reach out to people who stand for things I really, really find distasteful.

Paris Masacre and Liberal values

If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.

Quoted from Ross Douthat – New York Times. Credit to Jen Robertson for picking up on this thought provoking libertarian view.