Tolerance has become the fashionable sentiment of admitting to society those we loathe. But human dignity deserves more. Tai Ji Men deserves much more.
by Marco Respinti *
*Conclusions of the webinar “Tolerance for Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on November 16, 2022, United Nations International Day of Tolerance.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Despite what many believe and repeat, this sentence it is not by French “philosophe” Voltaire (pseudonym of François-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778). Nonetheless, it is quintessentially Voltairean. It was in fact penned by English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868–1956) in her book “The Friends of Voltaire,” published in 1906 under the pseudonym of “S[tephen] G. Tallentyre.” It perfectly epitomizes Voltaire’s thought.
Almost universally, this idea crafted by Hall out of Voltaire’s spirit is used to define “tolerance.” Now, speaking of Voltaire, I insist using the French word “philosophe,” rather than “philosopher.” The history of Western thought has in fact put upon the shoulders of these two seemingly identical words quite different meanings.
The French “philosophe” has distanced itself from the “philosopher,” coming to mean more or less a sophist, or better a sophister, i.e. a specious and fallacious reasoner. Being sophists, and sophisters, those who want to be right at all costs, even when their right goes against the truth, are the contrary of a philosopher, who should be somebody who serves the truth. One can speculate how much of the philosophy we encounter and study in schools is in reality mere sophistry, but this is not out topic for today.
Today’s webinar focused in fact on tolerance for Tai Ji Men, on the United Nations International Day of Tolerance. Tolerance is a fundamental concept for a human and humane civilization. But let me add that it is very ambiguous too.
In fact, “tolerance” is a downsizing concept. We tolerate what we neither embrace nor fight, yet despise. To tolerate means to bear and endure. But we bear and endure evils that we are not able to defeat and roll back, hence we suffer them.
Take for example the expression “zero tolerance.” We use it when we realize that enough is enough. It comes in when things have gone too far and it is not possible to tolerate—here is the word—levels of crime or social unrest that we know are evil. Sometimes we allow lesser evils to prevent and avoid greater evils, but this is a practical arrangement only, not a theoretical stand. And this “tolerance” always comes to an end.
Religious and spiritual traditions of all kind are full of examples of holy people who tolerate annoying situations and persons out of humility and abandon to the divine Providence. This will get people to Heaven but is still a battling concept: the “agere contra” of the motto of Ignatius of Loyola S.J. (1491–1556), here understood as “to resist.”
Those who merely tolerate fail to acknowledge the full dignity and humanity of others, including enemies. Tolerance is in fact the concession of something that some who consider themselves superiors grant to some they consider inferiors, out of their graciousness or, worse, their haughtiness. When simply tolerated, people do not have an inherent right to exist because they are human beings: they enjoy existence only because someone else recognizes and permits it.
Most of what the present world sells for tolerance is instead arrogance and hybris. We really do not consider different people, different cultures, different ethnic groups, different religions as worthy in themselves. We consider ourselves modern and enlightened because we display our tolerant benevolence towards people we really detest.
Tolerance has become the fashionable sentiment of admitting to society those that we loathe because tolerance is as flawed a concept as Voltaire’s thought, which embodies it perfectly. In fact, as French historian Jean de Viguerie (1935–2019) underlined in a precious essay published in 1993, Voltaire and many other “philosophes” of the Enlightenment had harsh and indeed racist words for many people, from Jews to Black Africans.
Therefore, on this International Day of Tolerance we should be ready to say that tolerance is not enough. That we do not want mere tolerance for people on Earth. That we work and hope for something different for Tai Ji Men than mere tolerance.
No one has the monopoly to say who should exist and who should not. The idea that some lives are unworthy to live is a heinous heritage of 20th-century totalitarianisms that has sadly made its way also in the democratic word, but it should be promptly rejected.
The concept of tolerance gives to one group the power to decide for others. Liberty is then curtailed and its measure arbitrarily established. An example from the past is “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” published in 1689 by the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), articulating the concept even before Voltaire. Under the mask of a latitudinarian approach, which many still consider the perfect blueprint to regulate religious affairs in a modern state, Locke called for discrimination against a religious group‒the Roman Catholics.
Another example from the present is the People’s Republic of China. Article 36 of its 1982 Constitution states that Chinese citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief.” But it adds that protections for religious practice is limited to “normal religious activities.” Of course, what are “normal religious activities” is decided only by the state. This is the rationale for persecuting all religions that do not comply with the materialist requirements of Marxism-Leninism.
I would suggest that tolerance of Tai Ji Men in Taiwan should not be our goal. Tolerance is not enough, and we should ask for more.
In fact, should the corrupt branches and officials within the Taiwanese government that persecute Tai Ji Men decide at some point to “tolerate” the dizi, this would not be good enough. A mere “tolerance” would implicitly reaffirm the undisputable power of those corrupt bureaucrats to decide whether Tai Ji Men is guilty or innocent, should be persecuted or not, deserve to exist as a free movement or not.
On the United Nations International Day of Tolerance, while celebrating the success of an appeal for tolerance that many scholars signed on June 13, 2022, on behalf of Tai Ji Men, let us go beyond tolerance. Mine is of course a provocation, but hopefully of a good sort. Let us expose all “tolerant” masks that deny authentic liberty. Human dignity deserves more. Tai Ji Men deserves much more.