Saturday, 2 July 2016
When I began to write this article I called it "Tolerance". When I took a break halfway through I renamed it "Tolerance/Intolerance". After completing it I've decided that the best title is "Intolerance".
As most of you know, Britain held a referendum about leaving the EU just over a week ago. No, I won't go into arguments about which decision is right. It's all been said before by people who know much more about economics than I do. What I want to talk about is the fallout. Ever since the results were released (eight days ago) people have been arguing bitterly. Friendships have been breaking up. People have been calling each other stupid because of their voting choices. That's not right. I voted to remain in the EU, and I openly admit that I did so for selfish reasons, not because of the arguments presented in political debates. Within three days of the vote four people unfriended me on Facebook. Why? If I had voted to leave I would still be the same person. But everyone is taking the vote so personally. If I'd voted to leave the EU I would probably still have those four friends, but another four people would have unfriended me instead.
This post isn't about the EU itself, it's about the general issue of intolerance exemplified by the EU referendum fallout. People need to accept the opinions of others, even if they disagree, even if they think the other people's opinions are totally wrong.
These are my core beliefs:
1. Everyone has the right (and the obligation) to form his own opinions.
2. Everyone has the right to express his own opinions.
3. Everyone has the right to do whatever he wants based on his opinions, unless it prevents other people doing the first two things.
I like to describe these as the freedoms to Think, Speak and Do.
(Wiccans might object to my third point, quoting their principle "Do what thou wilt, but hurt none". I don't disagree with them, but this isn't what I'm speaking about here. I want to speak about the freedom to Think, Speak and Do).
20 years ago I had a good friend who was a deep thinker, like me. He analysed all political and religious questions down to the depths. We fell out because he came to different conclusions to me. I accepted his viewpoints, but he didn't accept mine. He couldn't comprehend that anyone who thought things through logically wouldn't come to the same conclusions as him, so he accused everyone who thought differently to him -- including me -- of not thinking enough. That's a root cause of intolerance: denying other people's ability to be able to form their own opinions.
There are different sorts of opinions. Some opinions are about statements that are either right or wrong, whereas others are about things that are purely subjective. An example of the first group is "Mexico is south of the USA". An example of the second is "Italy is a beautiful country".
In the first group there are a range of statements that are either true or false, but it's difficult to prove which. Examples are:
1. "The Earth is flat". This was disputed for hundreds of years, until scientific advances were able to prove it's not true. Nevertheless, there are still a small number of people who deny the evidence of science. Click here for an example.
2. "There is life on Mars". While this seems unlikely, scientists haven't ruled it out. It's something that can only be proved or disproved after astronauts visit Mars and mount a thorough search. That might not be for another hundred years, based on scientific advances and (more importantly) how much it costs. Until then opinions can vary, based on the limited information available.
3. "God exists". This is a very emotional topic, with insults flying whenever there are attempts to discuss it. Those who believe in God's existence call the non-believers evil, and those who don't believe call the believers stupid. Some people say to me that they don't believe in God because nobody has provided scientific proof that God exists, to which I reply that nobody has been able to prove that God doesn't exist. Philosophically speaking, it's easier to prove God's existence than his non-existence. What I mean is, if God really does exist, it's possible to prove this if one day someone comes to the Earth and says, "Hi, I'm God. I was on vacation for the last 5000 years. Now I'm back to see how you're getting along". On the other hand, if God doesn't exist, there is no possible way to prove it. However many years go by without finding God there's always the possibility that he's somewhere else and we're just looking in the wrong place.
Everyone should sit down and think about statements like these and make up their own minds. The more difficult the answer is, the more important it is to think about it.
The second group is more of a problem. I chose an example above which shouldn't cause too much argument. But there are other statements I could use as examples:
1. "Democracy is better than dictatorship". This obviously isn't a question with a Yes/No answer. I personally love democracy as an ideal, but in practise it fails, because it encourages politicians to lie in order to gain votes. On the other hand, dictatorship is frequently linked to suppression of the freedom of speech (my second core belief). In theory it would be possible for a single unelected leader to listen to his people and do what they say.
2. "People should be allowed to carry guns". This is also a hotly debated statement with no clear right or wrong answer. I have my own opinion, but I challenge my readers to think for themselves. Guns themselves are not good or bad, they're just tools like shovels or pencils. Whether they do good or bad is decided by the people who carry them. That's what should be judged, not just generally, but personally. We should ask, "Would I personally be better off with or without a gun? Would I personally be better off if my neighbours and work colleagues carried guns?"
3. "Gay marriages should be allowed". This is another emotional statement. In most western countries the consensus 50 years ago answered No, but today's consensus answers Yes. What has happened here? How can something which was wrong a short time ago be right today? Many people would answer that we're more enlightened today. I judge the matter less positively. I say that people are sheep, believing whatever the media says is right. In countries such as Russia gay marriages aren't allowed, and the majority of the population support this policy. Are Russians somehow less enlightened than us in the West? Are they somehow more primitive or less evolved? Or do they just live in a country where the media says something different?
If anyone wants to know what I think about gay marriages, read my core beliefs again. I believe that (1) everyone has the right to make up their mind about homosexuality, (2) everyone has the right to speak about what they think, and (3) everyone has the right to do what they think is right. This means that my personal beliefs on homosexuality itself are irrelevant, because the third point means that I believe everyone has the right to practise it. Being tolerant is so simple. It's all about not telling other people what they should and shouldn't do.
But let's not stay with my third core belief. Let's go back to the first. Who are the people who object to homosexuality? It's mainly religious people. The world's two largest religions, Christianity and Islam, both condemn homosexuality. Christianity's holy book, the Bible, says that homosexuality is a sin that will be punished by God. Islam's holy book, the Koran, says that homosexuality is a sin and homosexuals should be executed. In recent years some groups within the Christian church have tried to relativise the passages on homosexuality by re-interpreting them, while all the major factions in Islam insist that the Koran passages have to be understood and applied literally. Let's dismiss modern Christian theology and assume that the New Testament passages on homosexuality should be understood exactly as they're written. Even in that case the Christian attitude towards homosexuality wouldn't bother me. The Bible says that God will punish homosexuals at the last judgement, so they can be left to do what they want till then. That's a critical but tolerant policy. Islam, on the other hand, is totally intolerant by telling its followers to murder homosexuals.
And who are the people who accept homosexuality as normal? They're atheists and other liberal thinkers. When I lived in Germany I had a friend who worked in a shop that I often visited. On one occasion she mentioned in passing that homosexuality is okay. I asked her why she thought so, and she was unable to give me any reasons. She assumed I was against homosexuality, so I didn't contradict her in order to keep the conversation going. She became very nervous and agitated when she defended herself, just repeating over and over again that it's okay without offering any arguments to support it. This disturbed me. People with her attitude accept homosexuality because they've been told to accept it, not because they've thought about it. People like my friend could change their mind from one day to the next if news stories and scientific "experts" told them it's wrong. I can't say it strongly enough that people have the obligation to make up their own minds about important issues. Any opinion that you've merely copied from others can be swept away within minutes by skilful propaganda.
I've said that I tolerate opinions that differ from my own, but does that include opinions that I find totally abhorrent, such as racism? It's not so much the opinions that I find abhorrent, it's the resulting actions, step three in my Think-Speak-Do trilogy. Suppressing the liberties of black people is disgusting, but thinking they are somehow inferior is merely stupid. However, I don't reject anyone's right to be racist. Let me give an example. A person might have grown up in an all-white neighbourhood in an English city. Without any personal knowledge of black people he might believe what others have told him about them being intellectually inferior. He might even have read Charles Darwin's books that black people are on a "lower evolutionary level", as Darwin describes them. It's practically impossible to argue with someone with this limited experience, and I might even have shared these views myself if I'd grown up in similar circumstances. The only thing I can do is hope that he'll move somewhere else, make black friends and realise his opinions were wrong.
There's one last subject I'd like to discuss before I end this article on intolerance. Let's assume that you've made up your mind about a subject matter. You realise that your friends think differently, but you've thought about it enough to be able to be able to defend your opinion. Is it better to remain quiet in order not to offend your friends or start arguments? I say No. If you have an opinion about anything at all, you should talk about it. An opinion that you keep to yourself isn't worth having at all. Talk about what you think with them. Maybe you'll win them over because it's something they've never really thought about. Maybe they'll point out faults in your thinking and they'll persuade you to change your mind. Maybe you'll just amicably disagree and remain friends. Or maybe the tempers will flare up and there will be a heated argument. Never, never, never lose your temper in a discussion, whatever it's about. In my opinion, whoever loses his temper in a discussion loses the argument by default. Losing your temper or resorting to insults is an indication that you're unable to defend your opinion by rational discussion and you probably haven't thought enough about the subject anyway.
For me there is no "conservative" or "liberal" school of thought that I subscribe to. I think about everything for myself, so sometimes I agree with the one side and sometimes the other. I have mostly liberal thinking friends -- maybe because conservative thinkers don't like to discuss -- and I sometimes disappoint them with my viewpoints. They say, "You agree with us about X, so why don't you agree with us about Y?" Maybe the answer is that X has nothing to do with Y, except being listed in the same catalogue of guidelines for liberal thought. Just because two people agree about gay rights, it doesn't mean that they have to agree on immigration, whaling or even religion.
I am a tolerant person. I tolerate everything except for intolerance. I try to educate my friends to be as tolerant as me, but I've had limited success, as proven by the four people who have unfriended me because of ny vote in the EU referendum.
Please leave your thoughts on this article in the comments section, whether you want to discuss intolerance in general or just a specific issue.