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March 18, 2008

4

Tibet, Truth & Tolerance – or is that impossible?

by quaesitor
img_0241.jpgimg_0244.jpg I go past this place several times a week. And there’s the same rather motley, and to my unenlightened eyes, peculiar crew who hang out on the opposite side of the street. But in the last few days, they’ve been augmented by another group (taken this morning, right) to fight the good fight. For this building is none other than the Chinese Embassy in London, which houses those diplomats and representatives that British and other Western politicians constantly tiptoe round. ‘What do you know about it?’, our venerable British leaders might say to me. ‘This is realpolitik’, they might add. ‘You’ve got to take the broader picture’, they’ll suggest. Doing that is somewhat difficult, though, when we are honestly expected to believe that the recent troubles in Tibet have been provoked and caused by The Dalai Lama! Such was the headline we were greeted with on the BBC online news this morning. I mean, come on!?!! Who you trying to kid? (FYI, see the BBC’s excellent range of reports and analysis on the Dalai Lama’s role and the whole situation).

 

dalais-fault.png

Now despite the political incorrectness of saying this, for all its nobility, ethics and undoubtedly impressive advocates, I do find Buddhism a worldview of dark hopelessness and depersonalizing despair. You might question that interpretation. You might suggest I’m misguided. But whatever you do, you must never doubt my right to say so. And our generation perhaps more than ever before needs to learn this.

 

You see, I’ve been thinking a lot about tolerance recently. I was speaking on Real Tolerance at All Souls on Sunday night as the conclusion of our 3D Life in Perspective week. And these famous words of Voltaire (who was by no means a friend of religion – that’s him below!) have been ringing through my mind, and I quoted them in the talk.

I may detest the things you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say them.

Tolerance begins at disagreement not unanimity – for if you are unanimous, tolerance is entirely unnecessary. In fact, tolerance almost presupposes disagreement. But the politically correct crowd wants to stifle views (even obnoxious views), in the name of a completely reinterpretated (even deconstructed or revisionist) concept of tolerance. This D A Carson quotation is helpful (I paraphrased it in the talk as it was too complicated for that context).

It used to be that a tolerant person was one who insisted that those who disagreed with him had rights no less than his own to speak their own positions freely. The slogan was, “I may detest the things you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say them”. The tolerance in other words, was directed toward people, not their ideas. In fact, the idea implicit in this notion of tolerance is that the tolerant person DISAGREES with some idea or other: that is precisely why tolerance is needed. One does not “tolerate” someone with whom one is already in perfect agreement!

By contrast, the new tolerance is directed not to people who are permitted or even encouraged to articulate repugnant views, but to the ideas themselves: under the priorities of postmodern ideology, it is wrong to say that any worldview or set of ideas or religious opinion is wrong or untrue or evil. Ideas alien to us may be “bad” in the relative sense that our own system sees the other system as flawed. But (postmodern tolerance urges) it is wrong to say that a contrary view is wrong, at least in any objective or absolute sense.

… As a result, genuine tolerance withers and dies. The most compelling evidence that this is the case lies in the fact that postmodernists are notoriously intolerant of those who do not share their epistemology. And this fierce intolerance is often directed against the PEOPLE whose views are disliked, not simply against the views themselves.

From D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places, Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2002) p147.

 

Now, what has been going on on the other side of the globe is an important test case. I may not agree, or even approve, of some of the things the Dalai Lama says, but I will defend his clear right to say them. That is what true tolerance must be all about. And if we don’t stick up for him in this, we are failing to be truly tolerant (even though there are elements of the bandwagon and the ‘easy cause’ about supporting him from our western armchairs and computer screens). It still has to be done. For otherwise speech disintegrates into a conformity with whoever holds the political whip hand. It might be the communists today, the gay lobby tomorrow and the Christian or Muslim fundamentalists the day after that. Despite the politically correct lobby, tolerance is not about kowtowing or being afraid to say unpalatable things. Tolerance is about not being afraid of the quest for truth, not being afraid to speak out the truth (albeit one’s own limited grasp of the truth) and not being afraid to have those claims rejected / criticised / analyzed / rebutted. Otherwise, such a society will bear all the hallmarks of fascist / marxist / fundamentalist oppression.

 

So as I walked past those silent and puny-looking protesters on Portland Place this morning, I could only offer an even more puny smile and thumbs up to encourage them in the wintry and political cold. No doubt an embassy curtain across the road twitched and somebody noticed and noted, so that any future possible visa application is rendered more complicated. Or am I just being paranoid?

 

It is no accident that this is all happening now, of course. The run-up to the Olympics was always going to heighten the tensions as well as the protest opportunities. For sure, one suspects that these blips will make not much difference in the long term. 6 months after the Olympics have been packed away to await their London visit, will there really be a change. And will the rest of the world have really shifted their fundamental economic imperatives? Probably not. But because it is a matter of principle, it is all the more reason to shout out loudly now. Which is why i think this Amnesty ad campaign is so brilliant and deserves wider coverage. For tolerance demands it. Just contrast this subservient, but actually quite sinister, Chinese Adidas ad (I mean, isn’t it the ultimate collectivist nightmare, where the countless millions get trampled to serve the greater good of the nation’s kudos in order to produce a single athlete?) with Amnesty’s hard-hitting European sequence:

 

Impossible is nothing, eh? Well how about trying a little genuine tolerance for a change…

 

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mar 19 2008

    “Tolerance begins at disagreement not unanimity – for if you are unanimous, tolerance is entirely unnecessary. In fact, tolerance almost precludes disagreement.” This bit confuses me: how can tolerance both begin at (require) and preclude disagreement? Could you explain?

    I love how you articulate this subtle shift in the idea of tolerance. It used to be that tolerance meant “Though I believe you to be wrong, I want to hear you because I value you.” Now it seems to mean, “There is no such thing as wrong…unless you happen to believe there is such a thing as wrong, in which case you are wrong, so go away.”

    Reply
  2. Mar 19 2008

    Thanks for this – you’re spot on! Sorry – it should have said ‘presupposes’ – was in a rush! Have now changed it.

    Reply
  3. Mar 19 2008

    I’m just amazed at how much you’re able to put out there, and preach too!!

    That “presupposes” definitely makes sense now.

    Reply

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