On Tolerance: The Good Kind and the Bad

Lately I have thought a lot about tolerance.

A word that is raised so frequently in political debates, yet means something different to all those who raise it. With the US Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing gay marriage, which, growing up in Sweden, I can’t imagine being anything other than a fundamental right, I would have liked to think that our world is becoming more tolerant.

Yet, on the very same day, we saw fanatics massacring, beheading civilians in three different countries, in the name of their God.

It couldn’t be more of a paradox. As many celebrated June 26th with rainbow-colored Facebook profile pictures, others were cleaning up bloodstained streets and beaches.

ISIL is not just another terrorist group. It is so barbaric that even the central branch of Al Qaeda considered its methods too violent, and refused to be associated with it upon its creation. It has taken intolerance – not to a new level – because its methods are clearly recognizable in most Medieval Torture Museums, but to a level we thought was impossible to reach again.

Meanwhile in Sweden, ISIL’s vile acts are still not bad enough to cause our government to respond in rage and disbelief. It takes a cup from its endless pool of sympathy and pours it over ISIL fighters. Instead of life in prison, members of our government advocate for rehabilitating and integrating ISIL fighters into the community; granting them adequate mental care and assisting them with work placements, to make them feel less like outsiders and more like regular citizens.

The international lawyer in me cannot help but feel that this kind of ludicrous behavior constitutes a violation of, for instance, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, paragraph 2(e):

…States shall: Ensure that any person who participates in the financing, planning, preparation or perpetration of terrorist acts or in supporting terrorist acts is brought to justice and ensure that, in addition to any other measures against them, such terrorist acts are established as serious criminal offences in domestic laws and regulations and that the punishment duly reflects the seriousness of such terrorist acts.”

Setting aside terrorism for a second, I have now raised two definitions of tolerance. The good kind, the one that legalizes gay marriage, and the bad kind, the one that accepts terrorists back into society.

I’ve also given an example of a very intolerant society, the one we get to experience on YouTube, courtesy of ISIL.

The kind of tolerance I abide by is the one intricately linked with equality. Equality amongst sexes, amongst sexual preferences, amongst ethnicity, nationality, and religion. Intolerance, on the other hand, is symbolized through oppression of citizens, of women, a society that prohibits the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. One that has no rights and no securities for its people.

What most people forget, however, is that the fight for tolerance, for equality, will necessarily, each and every time, lead to some group feeling targeted, under-prioritized, and/or as having a right taken from them. Because you cannot please everybody all the time. The fight for equality is not about pleasing everybody all the time. It is precisely about prioritizing one group’s rights over another group’s feelings.

Legalizing gay marriage in the US angered many religious groups, who felt that their religiously justified intolerance against gay marriage has now become under-prioritized. Unfortunately for them, the right not to be discriminated against due to your sexual preferences is a right that supersedes the right not to feel offended. There is no right not to feel offended.

Similarly, when women began having the right to vote, or the right to own property, or the right to divorce in certain countries, there were a lot of men who weren’t very happy about now having to share their rights with the other 50% of the population. Sadly for them, equality, again, was the prioritized right in this regard.

In order to have a truly tolerant society, you cannot tolerate everything and everyone all the time. Ironically, that kind of tolerance leads to an intolerant society. If you are to tolerate that some people consider it a right to beat their wives, then, naturally, you will create a society in which it is a right to beat your wife. This may sound like common sense to most of us, but for some reason, there are societies here in Europe in which this fact hasn’t exactly sunk in yet.

Some states have taken great, and needed, steps toward tolerance. The US is one of them. And in their fight to become The Most Tolerant Country in the World, other states have taken tolerance so far that it is no longer the good kind of tolerance. It’s the bad kind. The intolerant kind. The one that tolerates and excuses all forms of behavior, as long as it is performed by a person who forms part of a minority population. Because treating everyone alike would fail to take into consideration “cultural differences.”

People of the West! Let’s get off our high horses for a moment, and stop thinking that all those who are not white lack the capacity to act on anything other than instinct. We are all humans, and we all have very equal capacities to understand the concept of right and wrong. And I refuse to believe that certain morals cannot transgress cultural boundaries. Murder is wrong. Rape is wrong. Stealing is wrong. People who have been taught that any of these are right, have sadly grown up in a culture where the assertion of power – of men over women, of strong over weak, of rich over poor – has replaced the importance of morals.

And if, for some reason, that culture has caused certain individuals to do what is wrong rather than what is right, then we certainly shouldn’t endorse what is wrong in order to make someone feel more comfortable with their actions, and make us seem more tolerant.

About the Author
Olivia Flasch was born in Sweden to Polish-Ukrainian Jewish parents. After high school, she spent a few months volunteering in Israel. She then completed her Bachelor's Degree in International Law (LL.B) in The Hague, The Netherlands, and her Master's Degree in Law (MJur) at the University of Oxford. She currently lives in London.
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