by Salem Samhoud, &samhoud consultancy
A conceptual comparison
The word ‘tolerance’ is – especially in the Netherlands – often associated with connection between people. In this association, if something is tolerated, human fairness (personal responsibility, personal freedom etc.) will take precedence over formal, impersonal and patronising rules. In the case of tolerance, it is assumed that people are themselves able, at least on a certain level, to see social and legal rules in their true light and to break them at their own discretion. These infringements of the rules are tolerated, that is to say they are not punished.
The literal meaning of tolerance is ‘not taking action against things that are actually unlawful’. Some concepts that are often linked to explain what is meant by toleration are leniency, indulgence, forbearance and acceptance. These terms amplify the suggestion that toleration is a positive value that people prefer above limiting formal rules and laws. After all, tolerance, leniency and acceptance are values that we – rightly – associate with positive and moral qualities that give expression to a high level of humanity and civilisation.
As illustrations of the meaning of tolerance, however, these terms conceal an important difference by which tolerance fundamentally differs from these fine concepts of connection. Or rather, this fundamental difference is often rather conveniently ignored. The difference lies in the fact that in the case of tolerance a highly specific element is at issue: a law is always broken. With the other terms – leniency, indulgence, forbearance and acceptance – a law is not necessarily broken. You can accept all manner of things, but once you allow and leave unpunished an infringement of the law, you are engaging in tolerance. The same applies to leniency, indulgence, forbearance and so on. So in formal terms, only a legislative institution can tolerate.
From a conceptual point of view, it is this judicial element that separates tolerance from the other terms. Of course a policy of tolerance can be experienced as lenient or indulgent, but then these experiences can only be understood as subjective descriptions of tolerance and its consequences, and not as an actual component of tolerance itself. This definition of tolerance as the acceptance of the infringement of a law has major implications, especially with regard to the concept of connection. The acceptance of an infringement of the law means – in any case in principle – that the law is not regarded as a law. In other words: the legal nature of a law is ignored. This inevitably means a negation of the (legal) system that enables us as individuals to live together with one another in freedom. After all, the legal system (which is expressed in a judicial system of laws and regulations) protects us against other people’s arbitrary use of power, and enables us to realise our freedom in an optimal way (for example by protecting property, punish physical violence, and so on). The freedom that people can truly achieve can only exist when a legal system is acknowledged and respected. This means that a law should only be respected because it is an expression of this fundamental legal concept, which is the ultimate guarantee of personal freedom. A negation of this principle means a negation of personal freedom and a return to a primeval state in which there is no place for humanity and human values such as freedom and equality. After all, in this condition there are no rules, and everyone can do as they please, so that it is not freedom but chaos and the law of the jungle that reigns.
Of course this argument does not mean that one always has to adhere to each and every law and regulation. If a legal system does not adequately carry out its fundamental task – the realisation of personal freedom – or even hinders it, you can dispute the laws and regulations. The principle of tolerance does not admit this subtle reservation, however: by definition it is concerned with the acceptance of an infringement of the law, regardless of the content of that law. Tolerance is therefore at odds with the principle of connection. After all, connection strives towards a qualitatively high form of coexistence, and implies an understanding that this is only possible in a society based on a system of laws. Connection does not ignore this legal system, but strives towards an optimal form of such a system in which people can live together in an optimal way.
The so-called ‘tolerance cabinet’ in the Netherlands, made up of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), with the ‘tolerant support’ of the Party for Freedom (PVV), therefore seems at first sight to be based on a false terminology: hopefully we can assume that the coalition government will not commit any infringements upon the law or turn a blind eye to them. However, if they are to actually implement the dangerous convictions of the PVV as policy, and thereby violate fundamental (human) rights without punishment by the legal system, the term ‘sneaking in through the back door’ might be highly appropriate.