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Published on 12th September 2017

To tolerate or not to tolerate: is that the question?

In an age of extreme political division, is the tolerance paradox the biggest head-scratcher of these troubled times?

Language is a funny ol' thing. Know-it-all grammar pedants may delight in correcting other people's linguistic cock-ups (don't even get them started on the dreaded "greengrocer's apostrophe"), but in truth, words and their meaning are fickle things, easily bent to the will of the wielder. Take the word "fizzle" for example. Once upon a time, this verb described the act of producing a silent fart – I shit you not (literally). But then American college slang altered its meaning into the more wholesome, peppy definition we know today. 

'So what? Big deal,' I hear you cry. But the ebb and flow of language has a thing or two to teach us about the dynamics of modern society. Sometimes these semantic switches can be defiantly empowered, such as when minorities reclaim pejorative slurs, "queer" being a particularly pertinent example. But once appropriated or repurposed, words can leave a vacuum that often remains unfilled; the fizzled-out lexicon of flatulence has been diminished, and so our stealthy stink-bombs today remain nameless.

Another word is undergoing a similar metamorphosis at present, but what we stand to lose is far more significant than just a handy shorthand for bashful bum burps. The creep of far-right sentiment into the political mainstream has normalised the rhetoric of discrimination. And what's more, it's also given those who might previously have kept their ugly stances behind closed doors a free pass to toot their gay-hating, immigration-loathing, multi-culturalism detesting trumpets in public. All under the absolving banner of free speech. 

At virtually any other point in living memory, it would be an unquestioned no-brainer to describe such people as bigots. But in recent months, that word — bigot — has begun to develop a double-hinge. If alt-right rebuttals, delivered with pearl-clutching indignation, are to be believed, to brand someone as a bigot is to also be bigoted. And thus we find ourselves tangled in the oxymoronic web of the so-called tolerance paradox.

For the absolutely tolerant - a state of mind that, short of being on the cusp of attaining Nirvana, is pretty much impossible to imagine - tolerance is a binary state; you either are, or you're not. You cannot be somewhat tolerant, or a bit tolerant, or tolerant every now and then. You cannot cherry pick what principals, people or politics you will tolerate. True tolerance demands that we be unanimously unwavering in our commitment, and of course, this includes tolerance of intolerance. 

If someone is actively participating in acts of intolerance, like campaigning against marriage equality or pulling a Nazi salute at an alt-right rally, those who are truly tolerant cannot speak out against this, since to do so would itself be an act of intolerance. Is your head is starting to hurt yet? I know the feeling. But regardless of what a mind-fuck this moral Morpheus loop may be, this nifty tolerance loophole has been conveniently embraced by those who hope to defend the indefensible, using a finger-wagging presto-changeo to label any such lefty bellyaching as rank hypocrisy. 

Clearly, this is a model that simply doesn't function, primarily because it gives one side of the equation all the power while the other is hamstrung by their own principles. Yet, the notion of boiling down ethical choices to their bluntest, most maddeningly simplistic state is one that plays up to the anti-intellectual sensibilities of the alt-right. Hate doesn't have to be logical or robust enough to stand up to reasoned scrutiny. It just needs to be bullishly headstrong in its stubbornness: "I hate the things I hate because I hate them."

This way of thinking is like falling off a log for those whose worldview is built on prejudice, but for those who see themselves on the opposite side of the argument, a far greater challenge looms. Certainty of being morally superior is not enough - our actions, or rather inactions, must speak louder than our protest chants, and be consummately beyond reproach to boot. Any more militant action, as has been the tactic of the Antifa, is quickly equated with the on-brand violence of White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis. For those whose values oppose violent intervention – and that's certainly no bad thing – a self-inflicted gag order to avoid the implication of bigotry, however nonsensical, has played magnificently into the hands of alt-right commentators, especially where the liberal media are concerned. 

Time and again, we've witnessed the mere invocation of #FakeNews easily dismiss even the most ironclad reporting. But when the right-wing media appropriates the left's vernacular, for example, when White Supremacists are directly compared with Anti-Fascist movements as Donald Trump infamously did in the aftermath of the deadly Charlottesville demonstrations, the emotional afront for progressives has a far greater sting. These slings and arrows wound because words like "bigot" encapsulate every quality an inclusive society should reject.

But how then do we resolve the paradox, and all the loopholes it offers? One strategy would be to forget tolerance altogether and make intolerance our common default. After all, intolerance as a principle does not demand that we be consistently or unanimously intolerant, instead offering us the luxury of choice, to choose when and to whom we are intolerant. 

But hang on a minute, that's starting to sound a lot like the political status quo enflaming our social divisions (it's easy to see why such simplistic sentiments accrue such a massive popular following). In reality, this fractured logic attempts to hopscotch over the passion and essence of both sides of the argument, each innately convinced of its righteousness. It is the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

So where to look for answers? Academically, game theory (the study of conflict and cooperation between intelligent, rational decision-makers) has much to say on the benefits of universal tolerance. But such highbrow hypotheses tend to gloss over the most unpredictable and irresistible part of the equation: emotion. 

To impassionately stand by while hate is being promoted is to be complicit in that act, so while total tolerance might be the most zen behaviour, it is the least rational in the minds of those who have strongly held beliefs. As summarised by philosopher Karl Popper in The Open Society And Its Enemies: "Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them."

It's this irreconcilable duality that reveals one of the most problematic qualities of the paradox: tolerance operates outside the bubble of instinctual, reflexive morality. It is a light switch, that has no relationship or interest in what its function illuminates. It does not care about whose argument makes a positive contribution and which will negatively impact a particular community. It merely demands that both are considered equal. Indeed, provision for equal protection for all parties willing to tolerate opposing ideas is the cornerstone of western democracy, despite its inherent faults.

Let's face it, it really is a bloody head-scratcher. But as Australia prepares to engage in a national exercise in tolerance – the marriage equality postal vote that'll hoover up millions of dollars with its nonbinding referendum on human dignity – one overwhelming thought seems to howl above the din of this (far from) reasoned and (thoroughly dis)respectful debate: tolerance and intolerance do not equate to right and wrong. Our vocabulary may be tongue-tied, but the moral instincts of our compassion can still show us the right actions. Even when we're lost for words.

First published 12 September 2017, for The Music