4.4.1 Tolerance

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/441.htm)

People from different ethnic groups live together in many places, including most cities.  The term ‘ethnic’ is used here to describe racial, tribal, cultural and religious categorisations,[1] which represent a significant part of people’s identity – but which are not necessarily the way in which they choose to define themselves.[2]  People have overlapping identities: each person lives in a neighbourhood which may be of mixed ethnicity, and may have work colleagues who are similarly various, as well as feeling connected to people in other neighbourhoods who share the same ethnic identity.  People can be described as living together in peaceful pluralism if they coexist in the same geographical area without friction.  This is a realistic aspiration and has been widely achieved in practice; London, for example, is a cosmopolitan city which houses many ethnic groups,[3] and has been described as “convivial” in the early 21st century.[4]

In a peaceful tolerant society, where people see that others behave in a manner which they themselves expect and approve of, trust and cohesion gradually develop in the natural course of events.  People become accustomed to each other through the presence of individuals who belong to more than one community – for example when people of different ethnicities live in the same neighbourhood, or work in the same organisation, or marry and have children of mixed ethnicity.

Peaceful coexistence depends upon people being willing to accept that other people may hold different beliefs; as Isaiah Berlin wrote: [5]

“The enemy of pluralism is monism – the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit.”

He argued that tolerance stems from understanding that there are differences between values, without implying a relativist belief that ‘anything goes’.   He argued for mutual respect and discussion without attempting to impose beliefs on another person.  David Cannadine’s book, The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences, argues that the overall legitimacy of moral governance in a society depends upon communities avoiding causing harm to each other, even though each one might agree quite different aspects of its moral values for interactions among its members.

Freedom of belief is included in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Governance which tries to suppress people’s beliefs will be unacceptable to them.  There have been many wars of religion which have demonstrated the futility of attempts at forcible conversion, not to mention the associated violence and loss of life.

There are also some specific behavioural requirements which can contribute to peaceful pluralism; these are examined in the rest of this chapter.  The other dimensions of governance can also play their part, and the different strands of the argument are brought together in the final chapter of the book.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014


[1] The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives one of its definitions for the word ‘ethnic’ as “sharing a distinctive cultural and historical tradition, often associated with race, nationality, or religion, by which the group identifies itself and others recognise it; belonging to or characteristic of such a group”.

[2] As Amartya Sen, in his book The Argumentative Indian, pointed out:

“People are also free to decide that their cultural or religious identity is less important to them than, say, their political convictions, or their literary persuasions, or their professional commitments.” (p.  356)

[3] For example, The Independent on 26 July 2006 reported that there were 52 different languages spoken in just one school: Uphall primary school in Ilford (which was reported as an “outstanding” school by Ofsted inspectors).  The article was entitled 26 pupils.  26 languages.  One lesson for Britain; it was available in March 2018 at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/26-pupils-26-languages-one-lesson-for-britain-409323.html.  There are over 100 languages spoken in London as a whole.  There are over 20 Christian sects in Britain, as well as adherents of all the other major religions.

[4] The report Identity, Politics and Public Policy, published by IPPR in April 2010, describes what it calls a ‘convivial culture’ in London and other large cities (on p.  7).  This report was available in March 2018 at http://www.ippr.org/publications/identity-politics-and-public-policy.

[5] Isaiah Berlin, in his essay The First and the Last, argued that differences in values exist, but that they can be understood:

“I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ.  … if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it.  Hence the possibility of human understanding.”

He did not suggest that understanding implied agreement: “of course, if I pursue one set of values I may detest another”.  He went on to say:

“If pluralism is a valid view, and respect between systems of values which are not necessarily hostile to each other is possible, then toleration and liberal consequences follow, as they do not either from monism (only one set of values is true, all the others are false) or from relativism (my values are mine, yours are yours, and if we clash, too bad, neither of us can claim to be right).”

An extract from The First and the Last was available in March 2018 at http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~vl/notes/berlin.html