Will Tolerance Supersede Terror?

The world is currently under the cloud of a terror crisis – ‘terror as the new normal’! – following the spectacular attacks in Beirut, Ankara and Paris, with Brussels in lockdown for several days and US citizens travelling for Thanksgiving being advised to be particularly vigilant. If it is not contained in a sustainable way, without having to resort to violence and counter-violence, terrorism can only lead us towards mutually assured destruction (MAD). It is clear that if we want to get out of this spiral, we have to find a new paradigm for mutual living based on accommodating rather than hating each other.

In the wake of the 9/11 attack in New York, several world leaders started to preach ‘tolerance’, a call that was renewed after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and that has surfaced afresh after last week’s mayhem in Paris again. In Mauritius too there have been calls for tolerance at various times. The term tolerance has had different meanings for different people, as for example when it was described as ‘ce sentiment douteux de la tolérance’. For some it means acceptance, for others it means mutual respect, for yet others it means merely ‘enduring’ the presence of the ‘other’.

Indian-American researcher and public intellectual Rajiv Malhotra, in his book ‘Being Different’ explains how he has tried at various international forums to have ‘mutual respect’ be substituted for ‘tolerance’ in vain: it seems that tolerance has some special magic about it despite the perceived limitations of interpretation. It would appear that the word itself sounds more convenient and therefore let us stick to it, and work around it as it were to save our world from MAD.

What follows is a framework to achieve this objective; it can be further refined as it is a work in progress. It can be used in all settings where schisms – Sunni/Shiite, Black/White, low class/high class, low caste/high caste, master/slave, feudal lord/serf, etc – are the cause of persisting social divides and even, as is so poignantly visible nowadays, of violence of the extreme kind, namely terrorism.

Framework for tolerance

By analogy with Professor Arne Naess’ ‘four levels of discourse’ in relation to ecosophy1, I see five levels of tolerance as follows:

Level 1- Transcendental tolerance:

‘Ekam sat vipra bahuda badanti’ – Truth is one, the wise call it by various names.

Level 2 – Affective tolerance:

I respect you for what you are and believe in without trying to impose upon or change you to my ways.

Level 3 – Cognitive tolerance:

What we have in common is more important than the differences we have due to our diversity.

We can live, and work, together – ‘live and let live’.

Level 4 – Presumptive tolerance:

Our differences are more important than what we have in common.

I can work with you, but I am not so sure about living together.

Level 5 – No tolerance:

It’s either you or me.

Level 1 could be said to be the ideal, perhaps achievable only by saints for whom the fundamental unity of existence is a living and lived experience, hence see no distinction or difference. They see the One Reality, the One Truth to which the seers have given different names according to their unique experiences in their enlightened states of being reached through deep inner search.

Level 2 refers to the tacit mutual acceptance of each other’s culture and religious inclination, with respect of the validity of each other’s chosen path for reaching towards the Ultimate Reality. There is also a healthy respect for the other’s political inclination, the favoured instrument being intelligent argumentation rather than acrimonious and personalised demagogy.

Level 3 looks upon diversity as a challenge to learning about and understanding the other’s way of life, differences being thus an opportunity for mutual enrichment in the larger sense of the term. ‘Live and let live’ becomes thus the almost natural, positive choice that allows peaceful coexistence, the commonalities are explored to find out what norms constitute the core principles and values on which to build a trusting, caring society which moves ever forward to accommodate all who happen to find themselves together in it whether by accident or design. These values are constantly reinforced and debated sanely so as to reach higher and higher levels of understanding.

Level 4 corresponds to the kind of discourse which is encapsulated in the ‘we are condemned to live together’ mindset. We make assumptions about each other which do not correspond to the correct facts: we entertain false perceptions which we do not bother to clarify, and we are unconcerned about verifying the truth regarding the other. In other words, I merely endure you because I have no choice. If I could, I would rather not have you around. Tolerance as ‘sentiment douteux’ is very strong at this level.

Level 5 is exemplified by the terror attacks that are being perpetrated around the world with increasing frequency by peddlers of hate. As a commentator has observed in the latest TIME magazine after the Paris attacks, ‘the fanatics who detonate themselves may not fear death but they will never know what life really is. They know it is life itself that terrorism is afraid of.’ (highlights added). Tribalism also belongs to this level, where MAD is the only outcome possible.

This framework allows individuals, communities, societies and countries to calibrate themselves and decide their level. Since we are not saints, our ideal level would obviously be Level 2, but we could get on superbly if we could navigate at Level 3. If Mauritius were to function at this level, we could become the flagship model for the world. But we tend to function mostly around Level 4, which all of us will agree is not very edifying.

The recent events in the world have brought us perilously close to Level 5, which we have seen for what it can be: destruction of lives, property and all that man’s mind and hands have lovingly crafted for the benefit of one and all, spread of fear and unease and worse, a sentiment of persistent mistrust of each other. We deliberately choose to remain strangers to each other or to turn into enemies.

At Level 3 however, there is the genuine possibility of erecting a platform of principles rigorous adherence to which can be the basis of mutual coexistence and social harmony, and of a viable model of sustainable living for the world as a whole. Difficult maybe, but not impossible. The old adage can still be the way forward: where there is a will there is a way.

The framework proposed attempts to show the way. Is there the will?

* Published in print edition on 27 November 2015

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