Radio and TV presenter, author and historian Jonathan Dimbleby pulls no punches in his forceful declaration against intolerance.
From the latest Edition of Engage.
We like to think we are tolerant. This is an alarmingly complacent self-delusion.
Very often, in truth, we are tolerant but only when what we tolerate confirms to
our own prejudices.
Of course we are often right to be intolerant. Our criminal laws are designed to
express society’s intolerance of behaviour which not only offends our values but
causes direct harm to other individuals. Thus we are not only intolerant of
physical violence but verbal violence as well. ‘Hate’ speech targeted, for instance,
an individual on the grounds of race, colour, nationality, sexual orientation and
more, is outlawed in a civilised democracy.
But the law’s intolerance of such offences is not of itself enough to protect the
values of a just society. Look around the world and we see intolerance on the
rampage. Authoritarian rulers silence opponents; innocent individuals are beaten
up, tortured, and killed or driven from their homes for belonging to this or that
ethnic group or for holding this or that religious belief. In Europe which likes to
believe that it cradles democracy, the virus of racism and xenophobia is spreading
at speed. It is overt and threatening.
But, no less alarmingly, intolerance within the law is also growing and spreading.
‘Populist’ movements spout hatreds which they conceal behind a veneer of
nationalism. Venom spews from the mouths of a growing mob of bigots courtesy
of a ‘social’ media where virtually any excess of attitude is given free rein. In
those countries where freedom of expression is regarded as essential component
of a free society, there is little that can be done about any of this without
imposing a degree of censorship which would muzzle those individual rights to
free expression that characterise an open society.
And there is the rub. It may sound paradoxical but for me it is axiomatic that the
right to say what one wants within the law is a defining characteristic of civilisation.
This means that I have an obligation to accept that I will be shocked
and offended by much of what I may hear and read. This is not easy. To tolerate
opinions that are ugly, stupid, ignorant, wrong-headed, or mean-spirited requires
a herculean effort of self-restraint. It does not mean, though, ‘turning the other
cheek’ but to accept the importance of dissent while listening, learning,
questioning, challenging, objecting, and protesting. We do not have the right to
silence or shut down debate merely because our prejudices may be insulted.
So, when I see activists trying to silence rival views by shouting them down rather
than arguing with them, I am tempted to despair. And when these groups are
students or graduates of our great institutions of higher education, I am appalled.
When they use their privileged status at university to ‘no platform’ their
opponents merely because they disapprove of alternative opinions and beliefs, I
wonder why they can’t get it into their heads that they are denying the very
principles that have made it possible for them to be at such institutions in the first
place. The arrogance and bigotry of those students who will not allow dissenting
voices to speak on their public platforms – whether, for example, they are
defenders of Israel or critics of prevailing attitudes towards transgender rights – is
pernicious. By censoring dissent they deprive themselves and their peers of the
open debate without which civilisation withers.
Tolerance of dissent is as important as intolerance of crime. It is one of the prime
purposes of education globally to instil this in our very psyche. Otherwise not
only will humanity be horribly diminished but the security and prosperity of the
world’s citizens will be ever more imperilled than it is already.
(To read more from the latest edition of Engage, go here: https://issuu.com/ssfoundation/docs/engage_16_spring_2016 )