I actively call for centrist thinking and encourage respectful disagreement. However, the question remains: are there limits to tolerance?
At which point should I as an individual turn my back on friends for their inappropriate opinions, call out my neighbours for unacceptable actions, or cut ties with a relative for spreading hate speech? I do not have a one-fits-all response but want to shift the focus away from drawing red lines that divide.
Instead, I advocate polite but critical engagement, combined with patience, open-mindedness and at times even readiness to suffer some pain. This list captures the full spectrum of ‘tolerance’, derived from Latin ‘tolerare’, ‘to suffer’.
The question at stake seems to be ever more pressing now that we are coming out of the pandemic and talking to each other face-to-face again. Most day-to-day interactions seem to be back to normal. We come together with family, friends and colleagues without much restraint, and the occasional greeting over the garden fence may quickly turn into a half-hour conversation.
There is much to enjoy in reconnecting this way—except that, more often than before, I am confronted with odd views, such as about our government, the media or health policies. In many instances, I have the impression that those who voice harsh yet sketchy criticism are unaware of how their potentially valid concerns are instrumentalized to undermine the foundation of our society: trust, respect and solidarity.
Criticism in and of itself is not a problem for me. I am quite vocal about the numerous failures in the healthcare system and school board. However, even institutions and prominent figures deserve fairness. When I am confronted with questionable one-sidedness, I look for something to agree on before making the point that we should be grateful for the many politicians who serve their communities with dedication and integrity, often for low or no pay. In such situations, I may name a local politician of integrity whom I have met in person or point to an institution from which my interlocutor has received support. Such tangible messages counteract the erosion of trust that extremists work towards. The 2021 United States Capitol Attack and the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ are recent reminders of the threat misguided people become to law, freedom and democracy when their bubbles are disconnected from the centre and their skewed views appear as facts due to unquestioned repetition.
Vaccination also became a major issue over the last year. Most people I know were eager to receive their COVID-19 vaccines at the earliest opportunity, while some had concerns and a few even turned into fierce opponents. I think I had good arguments to counter theirs, but I respected their choices. I even did so when the evidence was endorsing the benefits ever more clearly, after millions—and now billions—of shots administered with a significant success rate. The lack of attention paid to the new yet more traditional NovaVax vaccine demonstrates that fear of the novel mNRA approach was dishonest—not so much on the part of our neighbours voicing innocent concerns as by the broadcasters who amplified this opinion to sow division, thereby causing much unnecessary death.
However, the more I noticed how the vaccination issue divided our society, the more I was looking to maintain good relations with those dear to me before the pandemic, while always being frank about the ease of mind that the vaccine has been giving me and my family. I did not reach everyone, admittedly, but I have not lost a friend yet and I have noticed with relief that most of those ‘at risk’ have tuned down their rhetoric. As I read these lines, I am reminded of people I would like to reach out to again.
The kind of tolerance that I am suggesting should not be confused with indifference, innocence or cowardice. I rather request from all fair-minded people a stronger effort to build bridges and keep public discourse centered and balanced by actively engaging also with inconvenient or misguided opinions. Some of them may turn out to be valid, at least in part, and gradually change how middle-class people see the world—part of the information may even be right, and why not admit, for example, that the time of the development and approval of COVID-19 vaccines was very short, but add that unprecedented resources went into these processes? In fact, some inconvenient outsider perspectives may gradually become the mainstream, such as the need to confront climate change.
Keeping an open mind to others’ views is important, if we want our arguments to be listened to as well. Other inaccurate or harmful views may soon be defeated by facts and experience, while the people dear to us who held those views remain with us. Key to playing such a constructive role in private and public discourse is honesty, the kind that tries to avoid arrogance and maintains respect.
Returning to my initial question on the limits imposed on inconvenient views, I hope I have shown that hypersensitivity often plays into the hands of those who want to divide and weaken our free and diverse society. Taboos are often less reflective of the stupidity or harmfulness of mis- or dis-informed views than of our own lack of trust in the strength of pluralistic discourse and democracy. Ultimately, the limits of the tolerable are defined by our willingness and ability to ‘suffer’ for the sake of maintaining community with the people dear to us and keeping the centre of our society resilient and resourceful.
Altay Coskun is a professor in Classical Studies at the University of Waterloo. He is interested in constitutional and legal matters, interstate and intercultural relations, imperial policy and propaganda, as well as the status of migrants and foreigners. Every third Wednesday, he hosts the Seleukid Lecture Series with guest speakers.