Year XXXVIII, 1996, Number 3 - Page 192



The idea of tolerance, which is nowadays the subject of an untold number of debates and publications and which seems to have become one of the key ideas with which to read, interpret and direct the moral and political choices of a society which tends increasingly to be multicultural, has in fact in the past often been in the forefront of the considerations of men of letters, although the term “tolerance” has sometimes been replaced by other expressions and the sphere of its practical application has altered, spreading into ever more varied and complex contexts.
Tolerance has been, and is from time to time, held to be the answer, on the one hand to the need to defend one’s identity and, on the other to the need to guarantee the living together of the members of a community through the mutual recognition of equal dignity for all. Tolerance in this sense is the antidote to what Rousseau calls, referring to individuals, “self-love”, that is, the vainglory or self-pride of the individual who does not tolerate being overshadowed by other people’s ideas and actions. As Gadamer argues, the task which every person continually faces is gigantic: to keep under control one’s personal prejudices, the egocentric sphere of private desires and interests, so that “the other” does not become or remain invisible.[1]
Yet which of these two opposites, the individual and the community, should take priority? In the world we live in, which need is more pressing: to defend diversity or to safeguard civil co-habitation based on the presupposition of solidarity? Gadamer defines solidarity as that immediate and spontaneous agreement on the basis of which it is possible to take common and universally valid decisions in the moral, social and political spheres,[2] which forces the search in the Other and the Different of that which is common to all. Will perhaps an approach that puts the two needs on an equal footing, enable us to reconcile them?
Tolerance and Prejudices.
Intolerance can be linked both to prejudices and to value judgements. Certainly, the line which separates one from the other may be subtle, yet the realm of prejudice tends however to leave to one side the confrontation between values which may conflict with each other in social life. It concerns the attitude of those who despise any cultural context that is different from their own and any superficial difference (skin colour, way of dressing, talking, etc.), regardless of considerations of their merit, justice, suitability or otherwise relative to living together in the context of a community.
Naturally, prejudices often turn into conflicts of values in cases where contempt translates into real social marginalisation, yet there exists no rational basis for the prejudices (I hold this to be right or wrong), but rather an act of will on a “to suit me basis” (I grant or refuse approval).
Are there any weapons against prejudice? It would seem a difficult attitude to uproot if it has influenced the thoughts of great men who evidently can not be accused of simple ignorance. Voltaire — despite making an important contribution to the analysis of the idea of tolerance[3] — nevertheless maintained that “if the intelligence of Negroes is not that of a different species with respect to our intellect, it is nevertheless much inferior”.[4] Similarly, David Hume wrote: “I am inclined to think that Negroes, and in general all the other species of men... are naturally inferior to white people”.[5] And again, Thomas Jefferson held that “Negroes — whether they be a species that was initially different or whether they have grown different with time and circumstances —are inferior to white people as regards their physical constitution and likewise their spirit”.[6]
Certainly, they could not count on the information that the employment of ever more sophisticated research tools (particularly, in the field of so-called racial differences, genetics) place at the disposal of our contemporaries,[7] yet in reality there does not exist a required and almost automatic relationship between the progress of learning and the elimination of prejudices. With the passage of time, they become an innermost feeling and pervade our relationships, they become a form of refuge, a walled stronghold that defends our own individual interests. In the conflict between learning and interests, the tendency to favour the latter often prevails.
Therefore, this relationship between learning and tolerance requires mediators who carry out their role through time: on one side, coercion as regards the negative social consequences of prejudice and, on the other, education which conditions the intimate convictions of each one of us.
Yet the education of tolerance implies living together, that is, proximity which allows mutual understanding. For this reason the trend towards the exaltation of differences through “separation”, which is gaining ground in some multicultural and multiracial societies, is totally wrong. This is what is happening, for example, in the most variegated society of the modem world, America, where the melting pot concept is being countered by a fragmentation which favours identity and the rights of ethnic groups, in which multi-ethnic beliefs are abandoned and separatism is taking over from integration.[8] Yet separation and competition among groups can not but create persecution manias and mutual suspicion, whereas the so-called “political correctness” becomes a totally ambiguous symbol of tolerance and respect.
Tolerance and Different value Judgements.
The issue is more complex as regards the relationship between value judgements and tolerance. In this case, the concept of tolerance is linked to the disapproval of and aversion to something which is considered wrong, since it makes no sense to talk about tolerance of matters which we approve of.[9] In a certain sense, it is a kind of indulgence. As Kant argued, a person is indulgent when he does not hate others for their mistakes. He who is indulgent is tolerant.[10] Yet tolerance of something which we consider to be wrong presents ambiguities, or at least creates problems.
What relationship is established between a tolerant person and a tolerated one? Is tolerance inevitably connected to relativism or at the extreme to scepticism (truth does not exist: there exist many truths), or can it become a premise for making progress towards the definition of shared truths? Is it right that a person who believes in a certain idea or in certain values passively accepts and tolerates the practical consequences of actions that are motivated by ideas and morals that he does not share? Is tolerance a “principled” or a “functional” choice, that is, is it a good in itself or is it linked to considerations of public order and social peace (the cohesion of the state)?
It is possible to begin to answer such questions by linking the concept of tolerance to that of the equal dignity of people and ideas. One of the fundamental premises of tolerance is precisely the equal dignity of all human beings, who therefore deserve respect for being such, that is, in as much as they can be defined in Kantian terms as rational agents, who are potentially free and able to create and define their own identity.
Yet the definition of one’s own identity is not a private matter: it occurs through continuous dialogue with others and for this reason implies recognition. While respect is a form of “abstention” from judgement and is premised on equality, recognition is an active attitude, which leads toward the exaltation of difference. It is precisely this latter phenomenon that has become the battle-cry of those movements against discrimination which characterise the pluralist and multicultural societies of our age. The answers which liberal democratic culture and politics have given to the problem of freedom and equality have been called into question on the basis of the consideration that not only the fundamental freedoms (of thought, speech, print, etc.) and the fulfilment of fundamental needs (education, income, health, etc.) should be guaranteed, but also that the cultural differences of individuals and groups who do not identify with the prevailing culture should be safeguarded. Hence, the virtue of tolerance should not consist only of a “laissez faire” attitude or in abstaining from exercising one’s power over somebody else’s opinions and actions, even if they are significantly different from ours and even if we disapprove of them from a moral viewpoint,[11] but also in creating opportunities for other people and in doing everything we can to help them to uphold and develop their differences.[12]
The stress placed on diversity and its defence is, as has already been mentioned, what is bringing about a crisis in American society. The policy of recognition has been linked to the need for ethnic self-assertion against cultural nationalisation, to the celebration of ethnicity through the development of a literature or a compensatory history which is inspired by group resentment and pride and often based on falsifications,[13] to the organisation of forms of support for the ethnic community (dedicated schools, exclusive meeting centres, etc.) and to demands for an active state role in defence of the rights of minorities in addition to those of individuals, through the granting of opportunities to which the majority should be excluded from.[14]
Yet is this the right approach? In reality, both in American and European history, it has been precisely the emphasis on and sharpening of differences which has led to intolerance. If pluralism is combined with the creation of forms of segregation, its positive aspect is turned into a negative one, and that which is considered a fundamental form of civilisation turns into an instrument of barbarity. The various kinds of tribalism that are currently arising in the World (at the ethnic, religious or political level), which are based on the need to share common, exclusive emotions, risk enveloping us in an atmosphere of fanaticism.[15]
The concept of tolerance, when taken to this extreme, has as its premise a sort of scepticism, or relativism, according to which what is important for each person and each group is “his or their own truth” (his or their ideas, culture, moral and life choices), which can not and must not be influenced or conditioned by the “truth of others”. In turn, this premise is founded on the fear of uniformity, of homogenisation, which are perceived, particularly nowadays, as real dangers linked to the “global communication” society. The fear is that if tolerance of diversity were to have the function of promoting the discovery of truth, that would ultimately lead to, the disappearance of diversity, that is, to unanimity.[16]
Hannah Arendt, for example, has argued against the necessity to achieve fixed points that are unanimously agreed on. She defends diversity in itself and subordinates truth to pluralism, which allows an endless dialogue between people: the traditional idea of truth, she maintains, threatens the plurality of perspectives that are continuously changing and the free choice of opinions to adhere to, and it replaces the endless talk of politics with the single voice of all rational men.[17] For this reason tolerance must be defended since it lies at the basis of the possibility for discussion and debate, and this represents a value which is superior to truth.
Placing the emphasis on diversity can therefore lead to two results: fanaticism or pluralism as an essential value and therefore an end in itself; both of them, although in different ways, have a relativistic basis.
But there exists a third outcome which, by not making of diversity an absolute value, recuperates it as an element in a process, a process without end, but not without fixed points — and these are those values whose presence or absence conditions the possibility of infinite dialogue between the diversities. Tolerance, in this case, is based on the concept of fallibility. As Popper argues, the fact that human beings are fallible means that we are all capable of erring. Yet to state this is equivalent to saying that the truth exists and that there are actions that are morally right, or almost right. Fallibility certainly implies that truth and good are not within hand’s reach and that we should always be ready to discover that we were wrong. In the confrontation of different opinions, it is necessary to start from this premise: “I may be wrong and you may be right”. If those who discuss subscribe to this assertion, this is sufficient to guarantee mutual tolerance. Nevertheless, in order to avoid relativism, it is necessary to go further. They should say: “I may be wrong and you may be right; and if we discuss the problem rationally, we may be able to correct our mistakes and both of us may be able to get closer to the truth”.[18]
It is on the same premises that John Stuart Mill bases his assertions on tolerance, which he considers to be a means to an end: the truth. “As mankind improves, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested”.[19] In Mill’s opinion, tolerance of different opinions is therefore functional and relates to a specific objective, which, once achieved, in a certain sense deprives tolerance of any further role: if the aim of tolerance is the creation of widely-accepted opinions, once these have been formed they must have the same value for everybody.
That it is impossible to avoid fixed points emerges also from the observation that all those who have been involved with the issue of tolerance agree on the fact that its practical application imposes some limitations. It is not possible, for example, to tolerate intolerance, to be tolerant of the manipulation of facts or the denial of the equality of rights, and so on.
Tolerance, therefore, is the premise for discussion and dialogue, yet at the same time it is subordinated to those values whose negation would result in the negation of tolerance itself, values which have progressively emerged through the course of history and which, although not fully and universally realised, tend to become the basis of life in common.
The different ethnic and religious groups present in multicultural societies, which cloak themselves in the flag of their own diversity, and which demand recognition in the high-powered sense which implies the concession of special rights by the state, create instead a contrast between particular rights and common values, to which nevertheless they appeal. The demands for special treatment by the French-Canadians of Quebec are a good example. This region has passed various laws regarding the defence of the French language: one states that neither French-speakers nor immigrants can send their children to English-language schools, another imposes the use of French at work in companies with more than fifty employees. In the name of the collective survival of a group, the government of Quebec has therefore imposed on its citizens restrictions which on the one hand are in conflict with the contents of the Canadian Charter of Rights adopted in 1982, and on the other damage the right of all citizens to make free and autonomous choices with regard to certain aspects of their life.[20]
Citizenship and Belonging.
As Giacomo Marramao writes, the logic of the multicultural society seems to produce a sort of “detachment... between citizenship and belonging.... the modern democratic idea of a belonging that is entirely encompassed by citizenship is no longer able to face the challenges of contemporary society. We now know that there exist needs of symbolic identification which can never be fully realised within the sphere of citizenship... Responding to the social demands by broadening the horizons... of citizenship is feasible for as long as we are dealing with political conflicts (regarding rights of equality), or with economic and social conflicts (claims of interest or status). Yet it becomes no longer a feasible response when moral conflicts, conflicts between values come into play”.[21]
Now, if it is true that we are witnessing nearly everywhere in the world the emergence of this phenomenon of fragmentation based on the proliferation of “super-exclusive” identities, what we need to ask ourselves is whether tolerance towards the “artificial proliferation of the logic of identity” can lead as far as to the passive acceptance of disintegration, which inevitably results in conflict, or whether it is possible to find an equilibrium that resolves the opposition between citizenship and belonging and will render multicultural citizenship practicable.
The potential conflict between citizenship and belonging, intended as symbolic identification, was resolved by national ideology through the imposition of a single culture and through mythical symbols which led to the identity of citizenship and belonging to a national community that was made and considered to be homogenous in an artificial way.
Yet it is precisely the crisis of the national states with regard to the new, emerging situation, to the progressive increase of interdependence, that contains the seed of a new and more libertarian solution of this conflict. The crisis contains the seed of a solution in a dialectic sense, since it is precisely this crisis and interdependence which are among the factors that trigger the process of disintegration in the name of tolerance and the recognition of diversities, and this represents the denial of the synthesis between citizenship and belonging. Yet at the same time, these two factors pose a question which we can not avoid finding an answer to: the issue of which alternative institutions should be established specifically in order to dominate the crisis and face interdependence without provoking moves to disintegration.
What is taking place in Europe, if Europe proves able to complete its federal unification, is the practical response that the European states are giving to that question, and an indication of the way forward that the entire world will have to follow, if we do not want to resign ourselves to undergoing the consequences of the ungovernability of global problems. Yet at the same time, this answer will contain a politically and symbolically new element: the overcoming of exclusive citizenship.
Paradoxically, the reaction to the dangers of disintegration in the most advanced multicultural society, America, may lead toward nationalism. This is how Arthur Schlesinger responds to the crisis of the melting pot: “History can give a sense of national identity. We don’t have to believe that our values are absolutely better than the next fellow’s or the next country’s... They are anchored in our national experience, in our great national documents, in our national heroes... in our traditions. People with a different history will have differing values. But we believe that our own are better for us”. The antidote to threats to the cohesion of the state is, albeit with due consideration for diversity, the championing of “American nationality”.[22]
On the contrary, in Europe the answer to the dangers of disintegration will be the creation of a multinational federal state, whose citizens will be able to become the subjects of a real “cultural revolution”. If (as is conceivable, given the varied structure of European society) the creation of the European federation will give rise to a new model of the federal state, more articulated than the American model and structured across various levels of government that give voice and power to the various territorial communities (local, regional, state and federal), this will represent the end of exclusive citizenship and the birth of a new concept of identity.
The search for “super-exclusive” identities is linked to the fact that the sense of belonging is connected to the need of symbolic identification, which is not considered to be satisfied within the realm of citizenship precisely because up until now citizenship has possessed the characteristic of exclusivity. This characteristic has brought about the pervasive role of the state above and beyond the public sphere (the sphere of the fundamental rights and obligations of citizens set down in democratic constitutions), invading the private sphere of ethical and cultural choices. The overcoming of exclusive citizenship leads to the separation of the two spheres, and tends toward the abolition of state-decreed interference in the private one, control over which is strictly linked to the need of inculcating the national ideology in the citizenry. This will enable the reversal of the trend toward the excessive and often intolerant demands for the recognition of differences, which represents one of the causes behind the birth of the new tribal nationalism which is developing momentum in our societies.
At the same time, the model of federal democracy based on different government levels can set off a positive process of revitalising democracy on a substantial basis, creating the conditions for a more open and tolerant society.
Value conflicts in the public sphere, just as conflicts of interest, can be resolved without definitive splits and destructive clashes if suitable institutions not only guarantee everybody, through liberty and equality, the satisfaction of their “primary needs”, but also encourage continuous dialogue as a tool for solving conflicts. Tolerance, within a suitable institutional framework, no longer appears as the “kind concession” of those who believe themselves to be right a priori with regard to those who express different opinions, but as the natural condition of a society which admits and gives voice to “respectable moral dissent”.[23] This is possible if every person, independently of the cultural context to which he feels bound and of his life choices, can participate effectively, together with other people, in the decisions which concern the world he shares with these other people. In essence, tolerance can progressively become a spontaneous practice (and thereby avoid the danger of turning on itself through the so-called “politics of difference”) only if the individual citizen feels himself to be fully involved in common projects. If one of the core elements of the demands of the neo-communitarians is the “compensatory search for community warmth against the ‘big chill’ of the purely functional institutions of our democracies”,[24] then this is a matter of opposing the current trend to define the community as the “place” of ethnic, religious, cultural identity, and instead to define it in territorial terms, that is, as the place where individuals, with their differences, live together and plan their future together through “discussion and action”.[25]
The emergence and spread of the multicultural society is in a certain sense a “necessary” phenomenon, in as much as being connected to the evolution of the mode of production one can not set oneself in opposition to it: what we can do is, on the one hand, ascertain the problems which it poses and, on the other, try to master them.
We have seen how, faced with the new problems posed by multiculturalism, among which is that of tolerance, what often emerges are distorted reactions that are more related to fear and uncontrolled sentiments than to the search for new criteria with which to judge situations and thereby find new solutions. The assertion of a new concept of “citizenship”, tied to the creation of federal institutions articulated across various territorial and government levels, can provide the solution that will avoid the exaltation of the need of symbolic identification which can lead to an intolerant fanaticism, and assist the search for a synthesis between citizenship and belonging and thereby the affirmation of multicultural citizenship.
Nicoletta Mosconi

[1] Hans Georg Gadamer, Das Erbe Europas, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1989.
[2] Ibidem, p. 97.
[3] Voltaire, Traité sur la tolérance (1763).
[4] Paolo Rossi, Naufragi senza spettatore, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1995, p. 114.
[5] Ibidem, p. 114.
[6] Ibidem, p. 115.
[7] Luca e Francesco Cavalli-Sforza, Chi siamo. La storia della diversità umana, Milano, Mondadori, 1995.
[8] Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America, New York-London, W. W. Norton & Company, p. 17.
[9] Susan Mendus (ed.), Justifying Toleration, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 3 ff.
[10] Immanuel Kant, “Von den ethischen Pflichten gegen andere und zwar von der Wahrhaftigkeit”, in P. Menzer (ed.), Eine Vorlesung Kants über Ethik, Berlin, Pan Verlag Rolf Heise, 1924.
[11] Susan Mendus and David Edwards (ed. by), On Toleration, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987.
[12] Ibidem.
[13] Arthur M. Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 55.
[14] Michael Walzer, What It Means to be an American. Essays on the American Experience, New York, Marsilio, 1992.
[15] Michel Maffesoli, Le culture comunitarie, Roma, Il Mondo 3 Edizioni, 1996.
[16] Susan Mendus, Justifying Toleration, cit., p. 177.
[17] Susan Mendus, ibidem, pp. 183-4.
[18] Susan Mendus & David Edwards, op. cit.
[19] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in Susan Mendus, Justifying Toleration, cit., p. 92.
[20] Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.
[21] Giacomo Marramao, Zone di confine, Roma, Il Mondo 3 Edizioni, 1996, p.46.
[22] Arthur M. Schlesinger, op. cit., pp. 137-38.
[23] Charles Taylor, op. cit.
[24] Giacomo Marramao, op. cit., p. 40.
[25] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago-London, University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Share with