Tolerance Isn’t a Dirty Word

There was a fair bit of controversy yesterday over an open letter, signed by a number of celebrities, arguing in favour of an anti-bullying program for LGBT youths based around tolerance of diversity. In particular the letter requested/noted the following:

The introduction of a nationally rolled out, federal government-funded anti-bullying, anti-violence program in public and private schools by the start of 2018 that includes tolerance and mutual respect of LGBTI people at its core. It should also teach students to not bully classmates based on their religion, race, gender, sexuality, faith, disability, skin conditions, social standing or political persuasions. The program’s curriculum should consult education experts, paediatricians, psychologists and criminologists before its rollout. An advisory board of experts should be appointed by the Education Minister that consults on the program and any teachers’ feedback on a biannual basis. The board should independently be able to alter the program if they choose fit with no interference from government. The board should be required to consult with community groups, including those from the LGBTI community, before making decisions that alter the program’s teachings. Such a program should aim to prevent all forms of bullying, including that which is based on religion, race, gender, faith, sexuality, disability, skin conditions, social standing or political persuasions. $6m was allocated by Labor at the last election for a similar program. We would expect to see a similar commitment from the federal government for the program outlined above.

The controversy centers around the choice of the word ‘tolerance’ in the letter. Reacting  for Junkee, Patrick Lenton wrote the following:

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On Twitter, writer/comedian Bec Shaw tweeted “Two words for this: fuck tolerance“. Moreover, musician Brendan McClean tweeted “I was “tolerated” in high school. I was so scared, my attendance was 52% in my final year. A few teacher fudged the dates to get me through.

Although these commentators mean well, their absolutism appears ignorant of the power of reframing the political message to achieve social justice goals, as well as the long tested justification for ‘tolerance’ as a political principle.

It’s important to keep in mind here that the role of government in teaching values within a schooling environment has always been a controversial one. Parents tend to have a strong vested interest in moulding their child’s values to reflect their own.

The silly ‘culture wars’ regarding curriculum issues, largely pushed by News Ltd publications, exploits the anxiety of parents worried that public servants are indoctrinating their kids.

The resulting “debate” not only hinders progress on LGBT issues, but has an impact of reaffirming world-views – creating a false divide between Left and Right concepts of civil society.

Although I agree that acceptance of LGBT people should form the ultimate foundation of anti-bullying efforts in schools, the following makes the case for why a call for ‘moral tolerance’ is a good – albeit compromised – first step.

The most vocal advocate for moral toleration was 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who saw it as a necessary step to ensuring political tolerance and basic civil rights for unpopular and marginalised groups.

Mill’s vision of moral toleration was justified on the basis that every individual has a right to shape their own sense of morality on the condition that they allow others to do the same. One of the key utilities of Mill’s vision of moral tolerance was that it allowed for ‘experiments in living’  – allowing society to test the suitability of old values within new social environments.

Now, let’s not be naïve here, the question of Safe Schools is a question of values. One of the silly consequences of the move from the discourse of 60s/70s queer liberation movements toward 90s/2000s ‘politics of recognition is a lack of insight into the socio-historical values underpinning queer identity.

The LGBT movement has inherent within it particular values regarding sexual freedom, pleasure seeking and an affirmation of diverse gender expressions – most of which came to prominence in the mid 20th century. This is not simply a case of opponents ‘not recognising LGBT people exist’. Indeed, much of what we refer to as ‘queer identity’ didn’t exist until the 19th century.

Contrasting the values of queer liberation, we have the Christian Right, whose sexual and gender mores centre around Platonic ideals of gender difference, preferential treatment of reproductive sex and the aesthetics of ‘complementarity’. Don’t get me wrong, these are shitty values, but they are values.

To place the political dispute regarding Safe Schools as a dispute over different concepts of ‘the good’ isn’t to dismiss the very real personal suffering experienced by LGBT people (particularly, young people). But it is to recognise that, whether we like it or not, Safe Schools is an issue that requires us to win the values debate over the reactionary Right.

Mill’s vision of a tolerant society was necessarily imperfect. In contemporary Western countries we view religion as being akin to personal spirituality. But in the 1800s, and in many other parts of the modern world, religion is/was a comprehensive guide to life. Such comprehensive value systems cannot exist alongside each other easily – Isaiah Berlin’s view of a ‘plurality of values’ within society is very much undermined by a long history of religious and cultural warfare. Nevertheless, we can tolerate our differences and view each other as humans of equal value.

One of the key advantages of an appeal to toleration is that it strips the heat out of the ‘culture wars’ and acknowledges at a base level that we are all human beings, trying to figure out our own way in life. Toleration, by its very nature, pacifies debate and makes it easier to understand the other side. Because of this, tolerance more often than not leads to acceptance.

Within the Safe Schools program, an appeal to tolerance would allow teachers to teach basic respect toward LGBT students. This is in keeping with other tolerance education programs instituted overseas. Clearly, ‘LGBT inclusion’ should be the ultimate goal to these programs but with all the silly moral posturing and parental concern around ‘gender theory’ – this moves the debate forward.

On a final note: toleration does not mean a particular value system cannot win prominence. There are still winners and losers in a tolerant society and pushing for a comprehensive Safe Schools program is something that can (and should) still be campaigned for.

Through clever, strategic, campaigning LGBT activists are well and truly winning the values debate around the world. Temporary compromise and appeals to tolerance are likely to be a good first step in this direction.


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