"the peril of taking tolerance literally"
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.