Don’t Ask Questions, Just Sign Up

This is good. A letter to the Times.

John Wainwright (letter, May 31) states that “tolerance implies that we have no right to challenge the behaviour of individuals or organisations that we disagree with or deem harmful”. However, the word tolerance has not been defined in this way until very recently. The traditional dictionary definition of tolerance is “the ability to endure”; that is, the ability to endure someone else’s expression of an opinion, even if we find it insulting, demeaning or offensive. This does not preclude criticism of their beliefs but it should preclude censorship of them.

We’ve encountered this muddle many times. It comes into play with the use of words like ‘offensive’ and ‘respect’, too, and now with this new use of ‘human rights’. There was for instance that discussion about what kind of ‘respect’ people should be required to commit to for job purposes. I disputed the idea that employers get to demand signed promises to ‘respect and value the differences among us’ with no specification of what kind of differences were meant – or, for that matter, of what was meant by ‘respect and value’. No doubt what they meant was non-persecution and non-tormenting of people for stupid reasons such as their race or gender or sex pref or hairdo – but that’s not what they said, and it’s risky to sign things on the assumption that they mean some vague thing that hasn’t actually been said when there is ample room for them to mean something else. But that’s just what we keep being gently but firmly pushed to do: to tolerate and respect and value anything and everything, and at the very same time (look sharp, now) support the human rights of religious groups to demand respect for their most profound beliefs, and to enforce that demand by censoring and closing down plays and art exhbitions. Erm – but aren’t those expectations in tension? Yes, of course they are, but that’s your problem, not ours; just sign the promise and shut up. So it is our duty to respect and value and tolerate Ruth Kelly’s human right to have her personal profound beliefs which are in sharp tension with the duties of her job but of course that is her business, not ours, and if we press her on the point, why, we might as well say that people of ‘faith’ can’t do jobs like hers, and that’s absurd!

One can’t help noticing a certain lack of clarity in all this.

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