A little while back, I got an email from Tehani Wessely at FableCroft Publishing, saying she was looking for stories for a planned anthology, called In Your Face, that were “provocative and/or confronting but with purpose – they should be pieces that perhaps make readers uncomfortable because they are a bit too hard-hitting / close to the bone, but which do so in order to interrogate these themes and ideas, and make a point about the world we live in.” She asked if I had anything that might suit.
I said, “Weeeell… I have this story that starts with the line ‘The paedophiles are protesting, again’.” The story’s called “Tolerance”, and it’s something I’ve had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about for a while – tolerance, I mean, not advocating the right to fuck children.
I think the problem with tolerance is that it’s too weak to be a foundational social value. I think it too easily becomes a cover for cowardice, or just plain laziness. You don’t have to bother understanding something if you’re just tolerating its existence, close to but separate from you.
When that happens, it’s frighteningly easy for political agendas that should never be tolerated to co-opt the language of legitimate identity movements. I picked paedophiles in the story as an extreme example to illustrate the point, but I remember a friend telling me about a conversation he had with a prominent German academic, who he asked why post-modernism had never taken off in Germany the way it did in the English and French speaking worlds. The reply was, “Ja, ve already tried ze identity politics in Germany between 1933 and 1945.”
Allowing people the right to be bigots is the top of a very slippery slope. Bigotry shouldn’t be any more tolerable than molesting children or bombing cafes. They all do harm.
Put like that, it seems easy enough to say that the only identity claims that are legitimate are the ones that don’t harm anyone else. Problem is, the post-modernists are actually right: there is no objective truth and all values are relative. To even say that “harm is the test” is just a claim, not a truth.
How, then, does one practice intolerance? How do you make it any different from bigotry? How do you stand your ground and say “no” to something, when the place you’ve chosen to stand is arbitrary? How do you say to someone “this thing about your culture is abhorrent and has to change”? How do you say to someone “this biological urge you have is abhorrent and can’t be allowed”?
Back when he was editor of The Spectator, Boris Johnson wrote an article titled “Who Will Defend the Seal-Clubbers?” in which he set out to do just that. The seal-clubbers, he noted, could quite reasonably remind their critics that “every year we herd millions of cows and even more millions of sheep into the dark bellowing terror of dung-encrusted abattoirs, blap them with a bolt in the brain and then slit their throats.” If you’re going to throw stones at other people, you need to be prepared to have stones thrown back at you. That’s hard.
I’m a straight, white, educated, middle-aged, English-speaking Western man. My middle name might as well be Privilege. And all of that privilege has come at someone else’s expense, because, let’s face it, straight, white, educated, middle-aged, English-speaking Western men, as a group, have a fuck of a lot to answer for. I may not replicate the sins of my forefathers, but I’ve certainly benefitted from them. How do I practice intolerance, without being a hypocrite?
How do you practice intolerance without hypocrisy, if you belong to an institution that, among its many other crimes, has provided sanctuary, career opportunities and a lifetime supply of victims to a horrifying number of child molesters – e.g., you’re a Roman Catholic?
How do you practice intolerance, if you belong to a nation founded on the invasion, dispossession and extermination of another people – e.g., you’re Australian?
How, if your consumption of frivolous luxuries relies on the systematic exploitation and impoverishment of a large part of the world’s population? How, if you follow a football code that all-but guarantees young men degenerative brain disease? Or indoctrinates young men into a culture of violence and sexual predation of women? How, if you drive a car?
Tolerance is an easy out. The other answer is much harder.
FableCroft is running a Pozible campaign in January for In Your Face, aiming to fund an expansion of the book from the current 12-15 stories to 20 or more.
UPDATE: The Pozible campaign passed it’s funding goal within 12 hours of opening (wheeee!). The stretch goal is to try and pay the authors pro-rate (which, given that I’m one of the authors: wheeee!)