If Europe is to endure as a place of freedom, Europeans need to be less tolerant
If there’s one word that our European society has gotten all wrong, it is the word “tolerance”. Not only has its real meaning been dangerously subverted to imply “acceptance of everything”, effectively denuding the word of any real significance, but its negative (intolerance) is now often associated with racism and xenophobia. The truth is, that if we want our children to inherit a safer and a more secure Europe, then we need to restore the meaning of ‘tolerance’ – and apply it far less.
I am aware that there are many who are keen to misunderstand, so let’s get one thing clear from the start: I am an absolute hater of racism and xenophobia. These are stupid and dangerous attitudes. Judging a person’s merit on the basis of race and shunning people because they have a different appearance is probably the basest and most ignorant traits that a society could ever possess. So this article is not in favour of racism or xenophobia. It is only in favour of ‘intolerance’, which, I will argue, is a good quality when used sparingly and should, indeed, be cultivated.
Tolerance does not equate to accepting somebody or something. The word implies a buffer of patience beyond which a breaking point is expected – a conditionality. It applies only to something undesirable. In a social context, therefore, it is misguided and outright silly to use tolerance in association with minorities. If I were to advocate tolerance of Catholic nuns, homosexuals or Muslims, these groups would be incensed. And rightly so!
The price of freedom
With all its faults and idiosyncrasies, Europe is today one of the freest places on earth: a planet where “freedom” is rapidly shrinking. Countries very close to us, have not only curtailed the process of freedom, but have set a course for regression. Turkey and Russia are, perhaps, the most glaring examples. A quick look at the interactive map of Freedom House shows Europe surrounded by large blotches of blue (indicating non-free countries) and one of their key findings is that “the number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year —72—was the largest since the 10-year slide began.” Against this decline, Europe cannot remain complacent. It needs to establish firm borders: not barbed wire against people but a safety net of intolerance towards all attitudes undermining its freedoms.
It is about time that we, Europeans, wake up to the realisation that the rights we enjoy and the values we hold dear have been hard won at a high cost, often through sweat and blood. If today I am free to write this article and publish it on a blog, it is because tens of thousands of people before me have fought and shed their blood for freedom of speech against monarchs, pontiffs and dictators. The same goes for gender equality, the separation between the state and the church, religious freedoms, the right for education and the right for representation, to mention but a few. These rights and freedoms did not come for free, but with a complacent, ‘tolerant’ approach towards adverse attitudes, we risk throwing them away for pittance – denigrating the sacrifice made before. To avoid doing so, we need to embark on a constructive Europe-wide debate and launch an ambitious action-plan: what to tolerate and what not to tolerate, what to accept and what to reject, what to let in and what to keep out – with the focus always on “what” and not “who”.
Walking the talk
Unfortunately, such a debate in Europe has become a chess-board of black or white, with only two tribes shouting out loud: the ‘Apologists’, paralised by a misplaced, post-imperial guilt and all-accepting without a squeak or the ‘Hard-liners’, galvanised by racism, sheer ignorance and malicious fear. It has, thus, become impossible to have a mature, middle-of-the-road debate. Centre politicians (Right, Left and Liberal) avoid the subject for fear of being (most certainly) misquoted in the media, while extreme politicians spew vitriol from the sides, offering nothing but catchy headlines. Anybody trying to speak differently is immediately tagged to one of the two camps.
The result is that nobody is leading the debate. Politicians whisper their views in corridors but are not brave enough to bring the topic out in the open. As one senior official recently told me, when Heads of State or other senior political figures meet, no one talks openly about the issues that matter. The result: Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and an ever growing list of dangerous, populist instigators.
We, the sane, moderate people, should retake possession of this debate and bring it out in the open. Our debate should not be about immigration or nationalism but about how to promote a culture of intolerance: not of people but of those attitudes that undermine European values – whatever the source of those attitudes. I’m talking about being intolerant towards attitudes that undermine freedom of speech, democracy, gender equality, the right for education, respect for secular laws, etc. We can, and perhaps should, have a debate on defining those values, but deep down we all know what they are. They are written in our Charters, entrenched in our laws and rooted in our civilisation.
This however, will not be an easy path. It will require bravery and firmness, because most of the threatening attitudes might, indeed, come from cultural and religious minorities – some of European origin, other having come from outside – who would most certainly call us racist if we try to defend European values. But we should not fall for that trap.
Let’s take gender equality as an example, because it is a basic principle on which many other freedoms are built. In Europe we believe that women should have equal access to education, jobs, careers and all the other freedoms enjoyed by men. If we want to safeguard this and ensure that our daughters will still enjoy those freedoms, then our society and its structures should be intolerant of all attitudes that go against this value, regardless of whether it is one’s religion, culture or family background that compels a different treatment woman. Our predecessors have fought and dedicated their lives for that value to be recognised and mainstreamed into our structures – being ‘tolerant’ of opposing attitudes and allowing them proliferate on European soil would not only be a disparagement but also a blatant discrimination against law-abiding citizens.
This distinction is not on the basis of race; whether one is of German, Pakistani or Chinese origins is irrelevant to the argument. It is the attitude which counts and it is the attitude that is not tolerated, not the person. For this to work, the converse should also be true. If one’s values are European, then that person should be considered as European, regardless of his or her ethnic origin. In short, it is not our genes that make us European, but our values and the way of life that we want to promote. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ is not ‘Christians’ vs ‘Muslim’ or ‘French’ vs ‘Algerian’, it is ‘values of freedom’ against ‘attitudes of oppression’.
Two paths… two endings
So far, in the larger European cities, this is not happening. Under the misguided, and often bigot, principle of ‘tolerance’, whole communities have been allowed to live by different values for decades, because they provided cheap labour, ready votes or because it was too uncomfortable to ask them to change. At the heart of our ‘democratic ‘ societies we are allowing girls to be kept ignorant and raised for breeding children, children to be indoctrinated, homosexuals to live in hiding, polygamy, and even parallel ‘quasi-legal’ structures. In Brussels, for example, Police avoid whole quarters where the rule of law of the Belgian state is tenuous at best.
This is not tolerance. This is simply an abdication of our responsibility to ensure that our children find a better, safer world and a disservice to the populations of these communities, who also deserve, as Europeans, to enjoy the same freedoms we believe in. We have a choice, either succumb to our fears and potentially lead Europe into another, destructive civil war, or assume our values and adopt a firm stance of intelligent intolerance towards threatening attitudes.
I sincerely hope we will chose the latter. I deeply fear that our ignorance will push us towards the former.
Photocredit: André Corrado