Let’s make 2007 the Year of Real Tolerance

...and not the vacuous, censorious kind promoted in Xmas messages by the Queen and Channel 4.

Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message is never as radical as the champagne mischief-makers at Horseferry Road like to imagine. Remember Sharon Osbourne’s? That was even more stuffily concerned with ‘family values’ and the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ than anything penned by Elizabeth II’s advisers over the years. If you stripped away Osbourne’s mild expletives, made in that irritating baby-speak she thinks is funny, the Queen of Rock came across as being every bit as old deary and batty as the Queen of England. (Sharon and Elizabeth even have embarrassing gaffe-prone husbands in common, as well as kids who have dabbled in the performing arts with little or no success and a love for small dogs.)

This year’s alternative message wasn’t even an alternative to the Queen’s; the content of both messages was strikingly similar. Channel 4 achieved its aim of getting up the noses of the Daily Mail and Tory MPs by asking a Muslim woman in the full face veil, named only as Khadijah, a British-born convert to Islam, to give the five-minute broadcast. And at the end of a year in which the veil was bizarrely one of the biggest political issues – following Cabinet minister Jack Straw’s complaint that he found it difficult talking to his constituents in Blackburn who wear the niqab, and his description of the full veil as a ‘visible statement of separation and difference’ – C4 was accused of ‘stoking controversy’. Well, it tried. It ended up broadcasting a message that not only was not controversial, but which was indistinguishable from what the Queen was saying on the other side.

Both messages were given by conservative women with archaic beliefs, who think God has allotted them a special role in life: Elizabeth’s being to reign supreme, Khadijah’s to be obedient and modest. Both women wear clothes as a ‘visible statement of separation and difference’: the Queen has a wardrobe of gowns and tiaras that she occasionally dons to show who’s boss, while Khadijah’s adopted garb, which she described as being part of her ‘identity’, also screams ‘I’m different from the rest of you!’. And both women focused their words of wisdom on the need for tolerance. The Queen said tolerance is more important than ever, as ‘the pressures of modern life sometimes seem to be weakening the links which have traditionally kept us together as families and communities’. Khadijah, describing her decision to wear the full veil as a ‘personal choice’, said: ‘As a society we need to be more tolerant of people’s personal choices’.

When both the most stuffy, traditionalist voice in British society and a supposedly radical voice – ‘a real voice from within the Muslim community’, as Channel 4 gushed – espouse the virtues of the T-word in messages to the nation, you know that tolerance has become the defining value in modern Britain. It was striking that even as the sovereign head of the British state was singing the praises of tolerance, over video grabs showing her visiting multiethnic schools and a mosque, on another channel a mysterious Muslim woman was demanding more tolerance. It neatly captured the reinforcing relationship between the official politics of multiculturalism and the culture of complaint. Khadijah was singing from the same hymn sheet as various self-selected and self-serving Muslim community groups, who claim there isn’t enough respect for their religious beliefs. Today’s official fawning over diversity – as captured in the Queen’s message – only encourages people to demand more respect, more evidence that you value their cultural practices, more public recognition for their ‘personal choices’, more official indulgence of their lifestyle choices, rather than giving rise to anything like a happy-clappy climate between communities.

The Queen and Khadijah’s messages also showed how the meaning of tolerance has mutated in recent years. Both today’s official and faux-radical celebrations of Tolerance with a capital T have little to do with genuine tolerance. Real tolerance, according to OED definitions and the words of Enlightened thinkers such as Voltaire, means ‘permitting free expression of views one does not share’; it is about ‘broad-mindedness’; it is about having a ‘fair, objective and permissive attitude towards opinions and practices that differ from one’s own’; tolerance is about being rigorous and robust, allowing all views to be freely expressed so that the ‘value of each…can be tested’ (1). In contemporary Britain, tolerance has been bastardised to mean almost precisely the opposite. Official Tolerance – or ‘intolerant tolerance’, as we have called it on spiked – is narrow-minded rather than broadminded, and more concerned with shutting down debate than freeing it up. And we shouldn’t tolerate that.

Firstly, tolerance has been adopted as a convenient cover for a lack of any real values or coherent worldview among the British elite. Unable to articulate what Britain stands for today, our leaders instead turn to tolerance, that catch-all, value-respecting category that gets them off the hook from spelling out which particular values are important and why. The monarchy, traditionally the figurehead family of what Britain stands for, feels this dearth of clear or shared values at the heart of British society more acutely than most. It screams at them every time they open the papers, in the form of endless Diana conspiracies, ‘SHOCKING SNAPS’ of Wills and Harry drunk, and various other salacious stories that suggest Brits don’t respect the Windsors like they used to. That might be one reason why the Queen has talked about little else but tolerance in her last three Christmas messages: ‘Please tolerate us!’, she seems to be saying.

It is not that the royals have suddenly become open-minded about different cultures (let’s not forget that the only time the Queen’s husband hits the headlines is when he says something silly about the ‘slitty-eyed’ Chinese or workshy Indians). Rather, it is the absence of any clear or specific values, of any meaningful sense of what Britain is for and against, that gives rise to all the fluffy talk of ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect for diversity’ everywhere from government departments to the Queen’s annual address to the people. As one commentator said of the Queen’s focus on ‘shared values’ in recent years: ‘[W]hat these shared values might be is never identified.’ (2) In elevating tolerance above all else – as an end in itself, the value to end all values – the authorities are effectively making a virtue of a vacuum, and attempting to put a positive spin on the profound uncertainty about what Britain stands for today. So the collapse of common values gets re-presented as ‘diversity’, and the inability to say what Britain represents is sexed-up and repackaged as ‘tolerance’ for other cultures and ways of life. Tolerance becomes a default position, adopted not from a standpoint of openness and experimentation, but from a position of doubt.

Secondly, and more ominously, Official Tolerance is censorious rather than genuinely tolerant. It is about stifling debate rather than encouraging it. It is a demand that we do not rock the boat or ask probing questions, instead just respecting everything. Except, that is, those who are judged to be intolerant. They can be slapped down and censored with impunity. Tolerance has become a new moral code that you transgress at your own risk.

This is clear in the debate about the veil. When Khadijah, taking her cue from numerous Muslim community groups, says we must be tolerant of her ‘personal choice’ to wear the full face veil, she is effectively saying that we should not question or ridicule it. Why shouldn’t we? It is absurd for women in a modern, pretty open society like Britain to cover themselves from head-to-toe in black cloth; Jack Straw was right when he said these oppressive garments are a ‘visible demonstration of separateness’ (3). Although, of course, Straw’s own New Labour government did a great deal to nurture the notion that rigorous debate or criticism of religious practices should be curtailed lest it cause someone like Khadijah ‘cultural offence’. The government’s Religious Hatred legislation, which makes it a crime to ridicule or offend Islam or other religions, is Official Tolerance put into practice – a law that says public speech must be restricted in the name of ‘tolerating’ all cultures. That is a flagrant attack on the hard-won right in our secular society to speak out against superstitious nonsense, and a flagrant attack on genuine tolerance of people’s views and right to express them.

Official Tolerance is about giving a sedative to society, blanking out awkward questions, and covering up the hole at the heart of British culture. That may be another reason why the royals – isolated, and always keen to close down pesky debate among the masses – are drawn to today’s idea of tolerance. They can stave off debate by using the trendy and diverse-sounding language of respect. Religious figures find Official Tolerance attractive for the same reasons: it allows them to avoid having to defend their backward beliefs against their secular ridiculers. Meanwhile, among those who are critical of the traditional religions or something like the Muslim veil, all too often the complaint is that it is these religious practices that are truly intolerant, because they don’t respect women’s rights or gay rights, etc. The accusation of ‘intolerance!’ is wielded by both camps in order to shut up their opponents by getting the censorious Tolerant State on their side. Too many are inviting the authorities to be true to their word and punish anyone who appears intolerant.

We really could do with a more tolerant society in 2007 – a more genuinely tolerant society, that is. That means allowing people to believe and say what they like, just so long as the rest of us are free to challenge them. It means enlightening and enlivening public debate, rather than dampening it with demands that we all hold our tongues in case we offend sensitive religious souls, the Windsors, or anybody else. And it means doing away with the criminalisation of the ‘intolerant’ as the sinners of our new age in favour of cultivating a robust and open culture where everything is up for discussion. In a secular, democratic society seven years into the twenty-first century, we should tolerate nothing less.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

(1) See The age of intolerant tolerance, by Mick Hume

(2) I’m as tolerant as the next man, ma’am. But stick to the holiday snaps next year, Tim Hames, The Times (London), 27 December 2004

(3) See Veiled meanings, Brendan O’Neill, Comment Is Free, 21 December 2006

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