Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tolerance and Religion

Mary Beard has an interesting post on A Don's Life about the British Library exhibit Sacred and its motto “Discover what we share” (Beard's short answer: according to the exhibit, it's prayer books with indecipherable scripts and abundant gold leaf). Her objection to the motto?
The trouble is the “Discover what we share” line gives a very cosy view of inter-faith relations. And it tends to paper over the cracks of what is equally important -- that is, what makes them different. So there was no mention here of (for example) the Crusades, which were raging on when a number of the lovely manuscripts on show were produced? And what about anti-semitism? Never mind what horrible things the rival strands of Christianity have done to each other. This problem came out strongly when it came to the role of women – who by and large, historically, have not done well out of any of these faiths. Apart from a couple of rich female patrons behind the manuscripts, the only place that women were really visible in the exhibition was in a trio of wedding dresses (including, bizarrely, Jemima Khan’s outfit representing Islam). The idea, I guess, was to show that women get dressed up in funny clothes to get married in all three faiths. But as one of the panellists pointed out last night, marriage is actually a very different institution in these religions: a sacrament in Christianity, for example; a contract in Judaism. You need to know that too.
She concludes the post with a meditation on tolerance:
I found myself reflecting how double-edged even the most virtuous of virtues are, when it comes to conflicting religions. Take the attitude of “tolerance” that we all think we should admire. Isn’t “tolerance” just another side of the problem, I mused out loud. After all, you only show “tolerance” to religions you disagree with and don’t much like, but have magnanimously decided not to persecute. It is, in other words, an alternative version of power and control – capable of being withdrawn at any minute (“I’m not tolerating this any longer”) and inherently unstable for that.

You can’t build world religious peace on tolerance, when it’s practised by those who “know” that those they are tolerating are “wrong”. Conflicting ideas of truth and falsehood are what’s at issue here.

Or is tolerance, as another panelist objected, at least better than intolerance?

What do you think? Do you believe that tolerance is possible? Desirable? What's the alternative? Have you ever seen this bumper sticker? Can the imperative "coexist" mean something broader and more fundamental than the noun tolerance? Doesn't coexist at least make judgment irrelevant to the question of living with?

PS Since we are talking divinity again, see also this post by Nicola.


Anonymous said...

Beard seems to have the luxury, as most academics removed from the social do, of viewing the proverbial glass as half empty. Thus, her ethical imagination is limited to seeing tolerance as "an alternate vision of power and control."

The cultivation of tolerance, especially in combination with responsibility and justice, is crucial to the formation of better communities. Furthermore, there is an extensive body of work on the linkage of tolerance to non-attachment, which has become one of the foundational principles of positive psychology.

Perhaps only I am allergic to the kind of tired and unhelpful crap Beard is espousing (as if pointing to the "double-edged" nature of "virtue" is somehow revelatory), but I wonder if there is a point at which we might stop the pathologizing.

Anonymous said...

From the comments to Beard's piece:

Tolerance is often a good thing, Mary. Such as my tolerating the fact that you've nicked the graphic of the books on display from our website without asking us!

Rob Ainsley
Editor, Sacred exhibition website

Posted by: Rob Ainsley | 31 Jul 2007 13:31:51

Welcome to the real world....

Unknown said...

ITM, I have been trying to keep up with your posting . . . with little time to respond. I am very interested in your explorations in religion. In terms of religion I am committed very particularly (pastor of a mennonite church). I am wondering if you are familiar with, or have any respect for, the work of John Milbank, Slavoj Zizek and Stanley Hauerwas as far as their views on the relationship between liberalism and religious dialogue? I suppose my position right now is just that, a position. It is local and contextual from which I hope to expand.
Anyway, good to have come across your work here.


Karl Steel said...

I wonder if we can think of something more proactive than tolerance, which strikes me as, au fond, a passive quality. Democracy doesn't just need to let heterodoxes voices alone to do their thing; it should actively foster a place for heterodox voices to come into contact with one another, to learn, and to disagree. We might imagine this ideal space as like a classroom, albeit one where the only role of the instructor is to facilitate discussion and, better yet, to teach the participants to do their own facilitation.

With mere tolerance we end up with something like the American suburbs, where people talk to their neighbors, if at all, get their ideas from TV or from the NY Times Bestseller list, and meet in crowds only at sporting events, the mall, and at their megachurch. No one's going to learn anything, challenge anything, and, if they encountered a crisis, tolerance would give way lickity-split. As Beard said.

To this, I contrast some of the better places in the Internet. There, we have a place where we need conversation and disagreement to keep things interesting, where, in fact, "keeping things interesting" (rather than just stimulating) is what keeps us coming back, and where we learn how to disagree without being at each other throats and where we learn how to exile freaks and trolls from the conversation to their nasty places where, yes, we can tolerate them. Here's something that might function as a model of what I imagine. This isn't a Habermasian coffee shop; it's a bit more expansive than that (although still limited to people with computers who can write), and I've no hopes of any final agreement. In fact, a final agreement would run counter to the productivity (or frisson if productivity's not your game) that I think this democratic space needs.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

IndieFaith: thanks for stopping by. You won't find Milbank and Hauerwas here -- at least that I remember -- but if you search for Zizek in the bar at the top of the blog you'll find more reading on him than you can do in one sitting. We seem to have a love/hate relationship with his work here; he has certainly spurred many an intriguing conversation. I'll check out your blog.

Karl, great point. In something as mundane as pointing out that "tolerance" is an inert noun while "coexist" is an action-beseeching imperative, I was trying to get at a less passive and more responsible frame for living-with. That's where I agree with Beard, whose blog I have never found to espouse "tired and unhelpful crap." Oh yes, and since ITM is a medieval blog, we --like Pharyngula -- need a dungeon. Neat taxonomy of "nasty and tedious denizens of the internet"!

Karl Steel said...

In something as mundane as pointing out that "tolerance" is an inert noun while "coexist" is an action-beseeching imperative, I was trying to get at a less passive and more responsible frame for living-with

Agreed! Without my knowing it at first!

(and MU, I suppose you're as tired of lost continent jokes as I am of 'man of steel' jokes?)

Karl Steel said...

That said--and lord I really should be writing my own stuff, but I'm restless--I've always told my students to avoid the verb 'exist' because: a) it's so clearly a synonym for the "is/are" they were taught to avoid in high school; b) and, more to the point here, it's inactive. If something, say, racism "exists" (as it has in many of my students' papers), then there's not much we can do with it; lord knows we can't blame anyone for it. In other words, to my mind, existance is a way of naturalizing, just letting things be, just noticing things. Ultimately, I find 'coexist' (even in its imperative form) even LESS active than 'tolerate.'

Should I invoke Zizek on fundamentalism v. liberalism?


And it would be nice to have a dungeon, if only we could find someone to put in it. If we did have such a thing, we've since had a harrowing, and otherwise, the world at large just doesn't (think to) care enough about medieval studies to want to screw our shit up.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Oh, I don't know. I've always had a fondness for those Buddhist-leaning verbs in which being becomes an active process. So, high school teachers be damned. I'm also thinking about the conversation we had here, when I suggested that the key to comprehending Eileen's titles is to have a good working knowledge of Wallace Stevens. MKH obliged with some lines from one of my favorite poems, "Of Mere Being." Taking "mere" in the Shakespearean sense of "utter," of course.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Here, here to the importance of practicing tolerance as well as the critique of its limitations, pathology as a value.

But I would like to stake a claim for the fundamental importance of existence, is, being, of essential ontological categories as foundations for tolerance and more importantly all of the more proactive heterogenous engagments we are interested in: discourse, love, democracy . . .

Too lazy to find a cool Levinas quote, but others come to us first and foremost as beings and everyone's "right" to be here, to exist, to talk, to live like a dungeon troll, is that one is already here, given within a space that no one owns. Being is the non-instrumental space of the real that saves us from instrumentalization, from being simply for life, history, culture, what not. a

Nicola Masciandaro said...

I commented before seeing JJC's comment, looks like we were being in a similar place!

Anonymous said...

Pathologizing is neither original nor virtuous. I know it's seductive. I mean, gosh, wasn't Menon's attempt to pathologize hope so impressive in this very blog?

Anonymous said...

As for the comparison of "tolerance" to "coexist"--if an argument is going to be made for one as opposed to the other, shouldn't we compare "tolerate" with "coexist" or tolerance with coexistence? This seems obvious, but JJC seems to have missed the nuance here when he makes hay out of setting a noun against an imperative (verb).

To tolerate: strikes me as quite active and requires strength of character. Witness Doris Lessing: "In university they don't tell you that the greater part of the law is learning to tolerate fools." Indeed.

Anonymous said...

All in good fun, folks. I'm not here to point out Beard's foolishness. Instead, I would like to hear more about the active sense of being that Jeffrey and others are describing. I just got an essay accepted on "being green" and the politics of social work, wherein I define "being" in terms of the tripartite world (Umwelt, Mittwelt, and Eigenwelt) and then frame it in terms of the work of Suzuki and the humanist psychologists.

I am also working on a team funded by a NIMH grant to study stigma in psychotic patients at a major psych hospital in Boston. Obviously the issue of stigma is related to that of tolerance. I've only spent about a month with the tolerance literature (mainly from the points of view of acceptance and non-attachment, as in the Buddhist notion), so bear in mind my limitations.

Anonymous said...

Seconds after posting, I received an anonymous email chiding me for neglecting the fourth world. Apparently, said the emailer, I've ignored my Vontress.

Guilty and not guilty as charged. Yes, the Umwelt, the Mitwelt, and the Eigenwelt have been conceptualized in balance with the fourth world, the Uberwelt. I have read my Vontress (1979, 1996), as well as my Binswanger, but I have also argued that the Uberwelt doesn't make much sense for post-industrial nations. Our problem, if you will, is with the Umwelt. It's the world that gets shortest schrift in the scholarly literature, for sure, and, more importantly, it's the world that gets bracketed in social service practice and policy.

So, my anonymous friend, there you have the rest of the story.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a discussion of coexistence and tolerance cannot be sustained here, but I would like to hear more about the active sense of “coexist” that Cohen finds to be characteristic of “Buddhist-leaning verbs.” Doubtless in Dr. Cohen’s vast and omnivorous reading, he has encountered the concept of aru ga mama, which is a Japanese phrase (borrowed from Morita therapy) used to capture the economy of “being” characterized by “the state in which the mind is not unduly arrested by anything and runs smoothly” (Doi, 1998). The phrase, as Dr. Cohen well knows, is a pretty good equivalent for what in Buddhism is known as non-attachment, that state of being in which the mind rests comfortably within the widest possible range of events, and is unable to be ruffled. Coexistence, in the western sense (as in say, Levinas) is not a concept found in Buddhist thought or practice, since co-existence means “existing with” or “being with.” The Buddhist practice of non-attachment produces an “existing in” or a “being within”—in other words, there is no notion of one separate being in proximity (however defined) with another separate. There is, rather, interpenetration of insubstantial “selves” or being-as-process. Thus, within a Buddhist framework, it doesn’t make much (if any) sense to talk about “active” versus passive senses of being, since even the notion of tolerance is subsumed under the concept of acceptance. Aru ga mama is a model of acceptance, as opposed to tolerance.

I have argued (in forthcoming essays) that to open up the question of tolerance/stigma or the question of co-existence/prejudice/enmity requires thinking through a cluster of ideas, whose structuring in culture (in the Mitwelt), are recognizable (and measurable) as a set of virtues we do not do well to pathologize. This set includes, but is not limited to, acceptance, responsibility, tolerance, openness to experience, perspective, compassion, and forgiveness.

I hope you see from where I am coming. As Dr. Cohen rolls his eyes when I blast another disengaged academic for pejorative claptrap about hope or tolerance, I roll mine as I wonder at the cluelessness that fuels such unproductive statements.

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