Tolerance - An Essay

Page Contents Tolerance


There has been some pressure on me to justify my point of view. This pressure has come mostly from my own mind, over a period of years, and correspondingly the self-justification has only to be made within my own mind. And if the conclusions are to be of any value at all, then they should be obtained by long and hard-fought endeavour. Perhaps that is why it has taken me until this point in my life to reach them. The journey was made no easier by the fact that my attempts to explain my findings to other people were haphazard at best. Simple elements that I accepted as fundamental truths were refuted, I found myself being accused of being a hypocrite, and worst of all was the fact that I am now trying to accept that I am. Or rather, I was.

Let me start at the beginning with the simplest premise I can think of (which is itself refuted by the early philosophers of what has now become the science of cognitive psychology): We are all people. That is, each individual that one communicates with is itself a sentient entity, much like oneself. For simplicity I'm dealing only with human beings for now. Each of those individual persons has a mind - one can consider oneself, hence sentience. Since we are all aware of ourselves and our surroundings and circumstances, it seems logical that we would not necessarily be impervious to being affected in one way or another by happenings we observe first-hand. Indeed, the "neural net" theory in psychology implies that (in a slightly clichéd short phrase) we are all a product of our experiences.

Now I had previously considered myself to be a very tolerant person; I am not racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Or at least I do not consider myself to be any of those things; of course I am biased in such an opinion, but I've never really had any complaints. So naturally having that point of view I always think everyone should be like me, and of course if everyone were like me then the world would get along fine. But the question it took me a long time to ask myself is: "Is that really the point?" Now I was perfectly happy with myself for a long time before I actually asked that question. And the reason I did ask it was that, for example, a white supremacist could say to himself, "Well the world would be just fine if all the people in the world were like me - white."

Of course that in itself is nonsense - a conclusion that I will deal with logically, if slightly pessimistically. Consider a world in which all people are white and heterosexual. Thus racism and homophobia would not even be concepts, let alone issues, and as such you might think that such problems would not be present. But you'd be wrong. There would be people who would hate and discriminate against others for reasons equally as trivial - eye colour, for example. There would be brown-eyed people who would hate blue-eyed people, and vice versa. The very fact that everyone's skin colour would be the same would only draw attention to the different eye-colours that people have. The only reason this is insignificant to our real-life bigots is that skin-colour is a little more obvious.

Now consider a second fantasy world. This is one in which there is a difference between groups of human beings that is even starker than skin-colour; for example, the number of legs a person has. Now of course I am well aware that there are people in the world now who have fewer than two legs (and very few with more than two), but these are considered to be deformities rather than natural variations. I say that with all due respect of course. There are people in our world who would even refute that as an issue, and those who say that people with particular conditions such as Down's Syndrome (which is caused by a single extra chromosome in one gene) are not "handicapped" they are "special". Now I have to disagree with this. There are many ways in which a person can be special, such as being very good at maths or music, or being very caring and warm-hearted, but being born with a genetic disorder is not one of them. If it were then everyone in the world would be trying to have his or her unborn baby deliberately altered to give it Down's Syndrome - instead we are much more likely to work towards finding a cure for the disease. If a person has cancer, we do not say to them, "Oh, that's fine, you're just special, enjoy what little life you have left." We send them for chemotherapy, to try to cure their illness. It's the same for other conditions.

Now nature would have already eradicated the condition, had modern medicine not stepped in. Via the process of natural selection, any baby born with Down's Syndrome would not have lived old enough to reproduce, and the disease would have died with them. Now I know that sounds cold, but I am at heart a scientist. Now consider the fact that science is saving these people. Good. They should be saved - they're human beings after all. But we should also be using our science to eradicate the disease artificially. We can do that by modifying genes of embryos, and again the disease is wiped out. Nature: no disease, no people. Science: no disease, people survive. If science is saving the people (but also saving the disease) then the least we can do is to wipe out the condition ourselves, to bring some order to the world but still saving human lives.

But instead the so-called politically-correct are forcing us into this middle ground in which people are saved, but the disease is also preserved in the name of interpreting the condition as variation of humankind. In effect, condemning those who are born with the disease to a (short) lifetime of it, instead of trying to find a way of eliminating the condition. Now do not misunderstand me - I do not have any less respect for people just because of something like that. But why call it being special? Am I rushing to my doctor begging him to alter my genes to give me Down's Syndrome? No. We must not lose sight of the fact that a disease is a disease, and should be treated as such. We can do that and still save people at the same time, if "political correctness" would allow. I wish we would.

Once again I have deviated from the subject I was trying to talk about; I was trying to consider a world in which some people have two legs, while others have three (I will make the presumption that everyone in our world always has two legs). The two-legged and three-legged people are present in said fantasy world in significant (but not necessarily equal) proportions. So it seems logical to me that there would be two-legged people who would hate three-legged people, and vice versa just because of the number of legs they have. Under these circumstances, perhaps skin colour would not be a concern because it pales as a feature difference in comparison to the number of legs - similarly to the way in which our own bigots are not concerned with eye-colour as much as they are with skin-colour. The short-term conclusion here is that prejudice would exist regardless.

And now getting back the point I started out with: a white supremacist might say that the world would be fine if everyone were white. And even if that were true, is that any real reason to wish all the people in the world to be white? My answer is that I don't think it is. Skin colour is something that varies between individuals, and with the obvious exception of Michael Jackson, is no choice of their own. Even if it were their own choice, everyone should be free to choose their own colour to express their themselves in their own way. The rest of us should be happy to make our own choice as individuals, and respect other people's choices as their own.

Now can I extend this principle to racists themselves? This is the point at which I apply the principle I laid down near the beginning: we are all products of our experiences. Some people are brought up to be racist. That's not to say that it's impossible to change, but even if it is, then I have to extend the courtesy I discussed in the previous paragraph by saying that we should all be happy to be ourselves - either to be free to make our own choices about our own lives (for things we can change), or to be free to express the things we are (for things we can't change). I feel that I am non-racist - but can I really preach to other people to tell them they shouldn't be? If someone else is racist, how do I know whether that's a choice that he's made, that he can change himself any more easily than I can change him, or if it's simply the way he turned out as a result of his early life? After all my early life is not the same as his, so undoubtedly his experiences are different to mine, therefore his point of view is different to mine. What feels right to me might not feel right to him. Did I choose to be non-racist? I don't think so - though many non-racists would like to think they did.

It may be true that if all people in the world were like me there would be less conflict. But my original question arises again: is that really the point? If everyone in the whole were exactly the same there would be no conflict - and yet it does not seem to be an appealing prospect. Just because I am a certain way does not necessarily mean that I can say that other people "should" be that way too, just because the world would be a happier place. Even saying that sounds ludicrous; surely as a person with a conscience I should be saying to myself that anything I can do to make the world a happier place must be a good thing. But personal freedom is to me more important still. If I can express my opinion as a non-racist, then I must allow other people to express their own view, whether it is compatible with mine or not.

In this way I have justified prejudice - racism, sexism, homophobia, and others which I will not list here. Prejudice is everywhere. I just have to make sure that I don't become so obsessed with it that I force it to be an issue and thus prolong its life. I dream of a world where concern about such things is not necessary. Will it happen in my lifetime? No. Can I help to bring humankind closer to it? Maybe. But only via leading by example. I express my views, and must give everyone else the same right.

What I really started off by discussing was people. We are all people. We all have a beginning, and events that occurred as personal experiences that have all collectively shaped us up to the present. We all have a home, a family (or lack of it), a history, and a story to tell. For some of us, that story reads like a fairy-tale. For others it is more like a horror novel. Whatever the case, it has formed our beliefs (religious as well as simply our opinion on any general topic), our morals (a sub-set of beliefs that guide us through our individual lives), and indeed our whole disposition. This is what we are. But remember that it's different for everyone.

Let me expand upon that a little more. I can only "see" the world from within myself, looking outward. Anything from my own mind is internal, and everything else is external. Sometimes I try to allow communication from internal to external, as I am doing now, but the communication is itself governed by me - an internal concept. Sometimes I try to allow communication from external to internal, but that all has to be interpreted by me - the same internal concept! Therefore nothing I can say or do or try to understand is objective or unbiased - it is always controlled by myself as an individual.

In order for you to visualise this more clearly, imagine that my universe is a RADAR screen. The centre of it is my concept of myself. There are also two dots distributed around the screen; one of them is you. I can only see perceive you from the point of view of me. I am also aware that you yourself have your own "circle of perception" that encompasses me and the other blip. Your view of me is not the same as my view of me; my view of me is interpreted by my internal mind, while your view of me is interpreted by your internal mind, and the two are different.

Now both our circles encompass the third dot, which represents an abstract concept; for example, it might be the concept of the existence of aliens. For both of us, this is an external concept, which overcomes one barrier. But unfortunately we both see the concept from different angles - quite literally in this visualisation. Now I am not going to go into exactly what my point of view is on this specific example - suffice to say that there are plenty of people who would disagree with me, and you might be one of them. Even if we did agree, that's not to say that we have the same point of view on it - it just means that we draw similar conclusions when we interpret what we perceive. Perceptions: different. Conclusions: similar. And other people would have perceptions so different from mine that their conclusions are different. No single view is absolute, so no opinion can be any more correct than another.

Now if we can remember that every single person in this world (and perhaps others) has his or her own circle of perception, and thus has a slightly different point of view to ourselves and everyone else, then perhaps we will be more able to accept ourselves and other people. We are what we are. We do not have the right to judge them any more than they have the right to judge us. We're just different. The conclusions from this are more far-reaching than I had initially thought. Just when I thought the journey was over, I've found that there is a long way still to go. But it's a journey that is of fundamental importance. It's the route I take that defines where I get to - if I ever even get there, that is. This pit stop has taught me an important lesson: there are no absolutes. I am humbled by the realisation.