Magazine article The Spectator

Live and Let Loathe

Magazine article The Spectator

Live and Let Loathe

Article excerpt

HAS this country ever been less tolerant? I doubt it. On the one hand are those miserable wretches facing the 'zero tolerance' of New Labour: the squeegee touts, travellers, fox-hunters, beggars, vagrants, drug-takers, conservatives. When it dare not prosecute these recreants, the government tries to excite a climate of disapproval against them.

And as for the allegedly intolerable Conservatives, they won't even tolerate a front-bench spokesman who says he wants to oppose homophobic bullying in schools. 'Social indifference', which used to be a guarantee of peace, is now condemned as an antisocial activity. A scale of values with liberty at the top is, says the Prime Minister, 'libertarian nonsense masquerading as freedom'.

It is becoming clear that long experience of toleration has made the British -complacent. They do not realise how fragile their ancient disposition may be. Let us therefore restate the case. Toleration is good, not just for the individuals or minorities who are outside the social mainstream, but for society. Tolerance liberates individual autonomy, enables citizens to feel fulfilled, heads off alienation and frustration. A dollop of tolerance helps keep the peace.

That is the principle, though it is hard to apply. Everyone claims to be in favour of toleration, yet everyone acknowledges that some things should not be tolerated. And groups with conflicting ethics or cultures have irreconcilable views about where the limits should be fixed. As multiculturalism multiplies the frontiers of toleration, the problems get worse. A plural society such as ours makes toleration both more necessary and more elusive.

Tolerance is riven by paradox: how can you think it right to tolerate something you think is wrong? When our tolerance snaps, the state has to take responsibility. It is 'an issue' only when conflict puts it to the test. Every intervention by the state creates dissatisfied constituencies. Tolerance for Orange Order marchers or republican gun-toters is not neutral; nor is toleration of racists on the streets or gay activists in schools. Just by being tolerant, the state seems to take sides. Logically, everyone should want maximum toleration because everyone can benefit from it. But it is practically impossible to convince intolerant people of the virtues of tolerance. You cannot make them understand that what you do unto others, others, when they get power, may do unto you. Whenever people feel revulsion from, some practice or take offence at some phrase, they start a campaign to ban it.

There are three critical areas where we seem unable to agree what the limits of toleration should be: freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom to choose a way of life outside the dominant culture. In deciding what to ban, we cannot appeal to the old cop-out criterion: 'Only what is harmful'. Harm, too often, is in the eye of the beholder. Some gains are inseparable from some pain. We cannot leave the problem to democracy, because democracy is part of the problem: confidence in the wisdom of the majority is chilling to those of us who belong to minorities. In Blair's Britain, the way things are going, we could end up with no security outside the focus groups. We cannot fix the limits of toleration by 'social consensus' because there is no social consensus, or demand adherence to 'core values' or 'basic tenets' that fellow citizens reject.

We ought to recoil from Tony Blair's solution a morally committed state and officially licensed virtues - because one man's morality is another man's poison. …

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