What ‘toleration’ requires

The Telegraph speaks up for inequality.

Toleration is one of the most fundamental values of a liberal society. It is also appears to be the one that some Labour ministers find hardest to understand. It requires accepting that other people are entitled to arrange their lives and institutions around their religious beliefs – even when those beliefs appear, to those who do not adhere to the religion in question, to be wrong-headed, or even discriminatory.

Really? Does it? ‘Toleration’ requires accepting that other people are entitled to arrange their institutions around their religious beliefs, no matter how oppressive and powerful and influential those institutions are? Really? So toleration requires accepting that a few other people are entitled to arrange institutions that control and oppress millions or billions of other people who are carefully and explicitly and permanently excluded from any power within those institutions? Really? No exceptions? So if a gang of clerics ‘arranges’ an institution that divides people into slave and free, toleration requires everyone to accept that?

Oh no no no – that’s not what we meant at all, The Telegraph would perhaps reply. No no, of course not. We meant the institutions that already exist, and have always excluded women from any power and any role in shaping the very rules that exclude them. That’s all. That’s quite a different thing, obviously; not like slavery at all. Obviously slavery is horrendous and no people can be allowed to ‘arrange their institutions’ in such a way as to allow slavery. God no. But it’s fine to exclude women – obviously – because women are…you know…well they’re not quite complete people, that’s all; they’re represented by the men they’re related to; so nothing is lost if they are excluded. Surely that’s obvious enough?

No, it’s not, actually, but it is obvious enough that that’s what unthinking smug comfortable people think on the subject. It’s also obvious that they’re careful to word things in such a way that that doesn’t jump off the page. It’s very sly to talk of ‘other people’ arranging ‘their lives and institutions around their religious beliefs’ as if it were a matter of all the people in question agreeing on how to arrange the institution when the exclusion of half those people from any possibility of participating in that process is precisely the issue. It’s not that ‘people’ arrange the institutions in such a way that women have no say, it’s that clerical men do. It can’t be called ‘toleration’ to accept the arrangement of institutions that officially permanently disenfranchise half their members at the outset. Yet The Telegraph feels entitled to do just that. Three cheers for the status quo.

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