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Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Ebb and Flow of Tolerance

Our recent trip to Spain’s Andalucía region, with its rich history, prompted thoughts on the ebb and flow of tolerance, and its fleeting presence.

My first insight is that “tolerance” is a much used word; therefore, some of its meaning has blurred over time. For instance, most of us do not understand that you cannot exhibit tolerance without having power over those to whom you extend it. Tolerance is voluntary action by someone who could control things otherwise. By way of example, if the table next to me in a restaurant where I’m not known nor have any influence is loud and annoying, I put up with it; I don’t tolerate it. On the other hand, if it were my restaurant and I had plenty of customers, yet I allowed it to continue, I would be tolerant of the behavior. Tolerance has a conscious forbearance of behavior (read custom or belief) even though one looks upon it with disapproval; and might see it as inferior, harmful or distasteful. You endure it even though you have the power to disallow it.

My second insight is that this virtue is not innate to a culture. For almost 800 years, Islamist Moors controlled most of Spain, from 711 to 1492 and the fall of Granada. This was a period of tolerance; Jews and Christians were allowed to practice their faiths without being tortured or expelled. I’m not trying to make this an idyllic setting, there was ingrained prejudice, and ghettos were numerous. Society wasn’t a serene meritocracy; but those in power had forbearance to those without. And this society flourished intellectually and commercially.

When the Catholic monarchs finally defeated the Moors, the Spanish Inquisition happily started. Moslems and Jews were forced to convert; or be killed or expelled. Even among those that converted, many were tried as heretics. Recent texts downplay the number of sinners burnt at the stake, and the brutal torture techniques; still large populations of non-Catholics fled the area: Jews, Muslims and Protestants alike. This intolerance wasn’t a short term event; it wasn’t officially abolished until 1834 under Isabella II. The region suffered; the Enlightenment was slow to take hold here.

Today we constantly see the West lecturing the Moslem world to become more secular and tolerant. What a difference 500 or so years make. When the magnificent mosque in Córdoba was being constructed, most people in Western Europe were huddled in caves; enough time turns everything on its head.

Absolute values are easy to explain and indoctrinate; just black and white to defend – simple belief. Relative values have a much tougher road; all that gray tone – lacking the fire and brimstone. America has lots of power in the world, so we must have forbearance; tolerance. I fear we are losing some of this. Others without power just have to “put up with it;” but not happily and not without a growing bitterness.

We need to pay more attention to history.

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