Musings for a responsible society

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The Limits of Tolerance

Nothing is infinite and unlimited in the world. Even the life is limited by time. So are privileges, rights and virtues. Therefore tolerance also has its own limits.

Tolerance is the cost for the richness brought by diversity. Tolerance doesn’t mean acceptance of the views of others. If one accepts the views and practices of others then there is no relevance for tolerance either as a law or as a practice. Thus tolerance is the direct outcome of a belief that differences and extremities exist.

Nation is ideally defined as a large body of people inhabiting in a territory and are united by common descent, history, culture, or language. But there are nations that do not follow any of this attributes and still could be called nation. Benedict Anderson, a political scientist called them imagined communities.  Countries like India do not have a common social, cultural, religious or political culture and consequently there are attempts to bring in homogeneity to create a ‘unified nation’.

Dissent emerges within a country when the dominant power tries to bring in certain uniformity on the lines of its ideology. It is true that scientific temper and reasoning need to be predisposed in the views and decisions taken in a democratic state. But it is equally necessary to ensure that the rationality and logic are not out of bounds for  the institutions surviving on faith and belief. The conflicts and mutual accusations happen when the state foregoes the scientific temper and the institutions and groups expect popular acceptance for all their irrationalities. Then there is a hue and cry for peaceful coexistence. People call it tolerance.

Along with the belief and practice related to a particular ideology and lifestyle come the specific rights attached to them. They could be social rights, economic rights, political rights, cultural rights, spiritual rights or any other similar rights. Now the pertinent question would be whether the tolerance needs to be integrative or choosy as far as a particular group is concerned. Can one respect and accept one or more of the rights and practices of a group and reject the others based on their own reason? Will that amounts to intolerance? If such a situation emerges, there is a possibility that the supporters of the intolerant views of a state consider the target groups as enemies of the state. Ultimately, this could lead to the disintegration of the nation-state comprising of diverse groups.

Rainer Forst, a German philosopher and political scientist gave four conceptions of toleration. They are a) Permission conception where toleration means that the authority (or majority) gives qualified permission to the members of the minority to live according to their beliefs on the condition that the minority accepts the former’s dominant position, b) Co-existent conception where a state of mutual tolerance is preferred to conflict as a matter of political necessity, c) Respect conception where despite there being an objectionable difference between them, citizens morally regard each other as having equal legal and political status, and d) Esteem conception where despite the positive acceptance of difference, there are reasons to still consider one’s own position to be more attractive.  In a country  like India, where the diversities  are extreme, in a situation of ‘nation-building homogenization process’, tolerance characterized by co-existent conception and respect conception can reduce the conflict and mistrust between communities or with the state.

The pertinent question would be whether it is possible to expect absolute tolerance by everyone to everything? Definitely not! Can someone tolerate a practice that is not only irrational, unjustifiable, and illogical but also inhuman and utterly derogatory? In such cases, the democratic state needs to be courageous enough to use the law to curb such practices rather than pleading for tolerance. Can those indulging in such practices demand tolerance from others as a matter of right? If the domain is religion, then the task is tougher for a ‘secular’ state.

The possible conclusion from the above discussion is that both the state and the specific groups cannot expect or demand absolute tolerance. What one can expect would be, as John Rawls put it, a reasonable pluralism, where the religious, moral, and philosophical doctrines that citizens accept will endorse toleration. Yes, there needs to be limits for tolerance even within a secular democracy.

           © Sibichen K Mathew                                             Views are personal


  1. well written
    no one has right to take law in his own hands if he does not like views of others

  2. Intolerance is real. To dismiss it as 'unreal' is ignoring the fact and mocking the pain of another.

  3. appears that to some traditional religion is a very a boring route . they do not want to reach the dead end ......which may be resulting in chaos, sparks and fireworks .


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