Wednesday, August 10, 2005

"the peril of taking tolerance literally"

Babble on.

This unexpected blogging hiatus has been brought to you by hot grease and second-degree burns to my better half this weekend. She's fine, although as you can imagine, this sort of an injury to a woman who takes care of two preschool children - not to mention a thirtysomething husband - tosses the family schedule like a salad for a few days. Pain management, avoiding infection, and potential scarring are our biggest worries at this point, and unlike me, Litlbit is being stoic. An extraordinary woman, my wife.

Those of you lucky enough to remain concerned with more mundane matters such as the worldwide threat of militant Islam will already have noted Irshad Manji's latest offering in the New York Times. In it, she wonders "what values are most worth defending" in Western societies, and finds that pillar of feel-good multiculturalism - tolerance - lacking.

As Westerners bow down before multiculturalism, we anesthetize ourselves into believing that anything goes. We see our readiness to accommodate as a strength - even a form of cultural superiority (though few will admit that). Radical Muslims, on the other hand, see our inclusive instincts as a form of corruption that makes us soft and rudderless. They believe the weak deserve to be vanquished.

Paradoxically, then, the more we accommodate to placate, the more their contempt for our "weakness" grows. And the ultimate paradox may be that in order to defend our diversity, we'll need to be less tolerant. Or, at the very least, more vigilant. And this vigilance demands more than new antiterror laws. It requires asking: What guiding values can most of us live with? Given the panoply of ideologies and faiths out there, what filter will distill almost everybody's right to free expression?

Manji's answer is "individuality": the idea that society as a whole benefits from each person's uniqueness. I'm not sure this differs much from "tolerance" unless we can define the limits of either of those concepts. I've always liked the Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. line: "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." Listen to whatever music you want, but don't play it at the volume of a jet engine inside a crowded bus. Get as kinky as you want with your chosen partner, but don't do it in front of the swingset at the local park. Pray to whichever God, on whichever terms you feel called to, but don't force me to do the same.

My own patience for unlimited, unreciprocated "tolerance" finally ran out in 1999 with the firebombing of the U.S. Consulate in Toronto over the NATO Kosovo air campaign. I feel a great pride that people from all over this planet want to live in my country of birth. I welcome all those who wish to trade their individual contributions for an opportunity to prosper in a mostly peaceful society. And I have no problem with immigrants maintaining some of their own cultural traditions in their adoptive home. But if one of those cultural traditions is throwing Molotov cocktails in the streets, my tolerance ends. Abruptly.

Setting limits on our societal tolerance is difficult in these politically-correct times and circumstances, but essential nonetheless. As Manji states:

Let's have that debate - without fear of being deemed self-haters or racists by those who twist multiculturalism into an orthodoxy. We know the dangers of taking Islam literally. By now we should understand the peril of taking tolerance literally.

Hear, hear.

Babble off.


At 12:14 p.m., Blogger Timmy the G said...

Great post, Damian, and indeed a disucssion worth having. I believe in multiculturalism as a guidepost for societal harmony, but believe there should be overall values that we as a society roughly agree upon regardless of our cultural roots. It's a tricky line to walk, and you - and Manji - are right in that the entire debate often deteriorates into very unhelpful charges of racism. But sometimes - not often - it is racism speaking, and we need to be aware of that as well. Still, people of good faith should be able to at least discuss the issue as you've done here - clearly and respectfully.

Very pleased to hear Litlbit is recovering well.

At 1:48 p.m., Blogger Temujin said...

Here's hoping that fine woman gets well soon, for her own benefit, but also so you can get back to blogging :-)

At 3:14 p.m., Blogger jaycurrie said...

I hope she heals well and quickly. Burns are awful things. And as a Dad with two kids about the same age as yours, I know just how your world turns upside down when mum is on the sick list.

I linked your post.

At 12:31 a.m., Blogger Sue said...

Best wishes to Litlbit! Nothing worse than burns - ugh! Glad you can be there to minister the wounds and help her heal.

As for the other topic, agree with you 110%. We don't see Canadians, for example, emigrating into a foreign country and terrorizing their nationals because they are less like our 'ideals'. Tolerance is only tolerance if it works both ways.

At 2:38 a.m., Blogger The Powers That Be said...

I attended a speech by Ms. Manji at my university last year and realized the kind of heat and vitriole she must face regularly from the Muslim community. An impressive young woman.

At 4:02 p.m., Blogger McGuire said...

I've always been a great admirer of Ms. Manji. She is an incredibly courageous person & is a refreshing voice from the Muslim community b/c she demands that her people take responsibility for the mess they're in right now thank to the Islamists. Too bad she's only part of a small minority.


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