Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Against Tolerance

I welcome and support British Sea Power's endorsement of a campaign launched as a reaction to the success of Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party in the recent local government elections. The plan is to try and get the band's pro-immigration anthem 'Waving Flags' into the hit parade in response to UKIP's populist anti-immigration rhetoric. (The Facebook campaign is here). However, I have serious misgivings over the language that is used on this side of the argument.

BSP's Jan Scott Wilkinson writes: "It seems that over the last year or two especially there has been a rise in anti-immigration sloganeering and propaganda. For several reasons this seems rather stupid, and what is more disappointing is the way that so many people in politics and the media who should know better have largely not challenged this view. Obviously times are hard and the economy is not going well, and it seems the old story of 'blame the last ones in' rather than looking towards real solutions has become popular. It's a kind of superstitious nonsense akin to witch burning. Instead of hearing about the NHS being staffed and kept going by conscientious hard workers from other parts of the world, we're told that it's groaning under the strain of newcomers. It seems obvious that immigration is being used as a scapegoat for all the problems caused by greed, ignorance, bad luck and a lack of planning.

"It would be easy to get angry at all the fools and the sanitised racism, but i would prefer myself to stick to the attitude of 'Waving Flags'. This is a positive song of pro-immigration, an embracing of different cultures and a welcoming of tolerance, a quality lacking these days and one which we could do with a lot more of in the UK. “ (from
I welcome this move, and pretty much all of what Wilkinson says is correct, but promoting the language of tolerance is the wrong move; it sends out the wrong signal. This is why: tolerance encourages people to indulge a kind of sensitivity towards something they instinctively disapprove of. Toleration means putting up with something you don't like; it means realising that you have to let something slide even though you personally disapprove of it. Many people disapprove of homosexuality but they tolerate it because they value the principle of individual freedom above the fact that they find homosexuality repulsive.

Tolerance implies disagreement with the thing being tolerated, thus we shouldn't be encouraging tolerance. We want people to agree with immigration, not put up with it. People who have a problem with immigrants are not going to be won over by people preaching tolerance, because that just seems to them like a bunch of overly-sensitive, hand-wringing liberals failing to engage with what they see as a genuine problem.

What we should instead be furthering is the notion that immigration should be welcomed, not tolerated. It must be spelled out why immigration and cultural diversity is good for society and good for the economy. This is an argument that needs to be won; it cannot be resolved by sympathy alone.

When there is division between different cultural and religious groups, rather than promoting tolerance, we should be promoting the recognition of what these groups have in common. White British people should not be told to tolerate Romanians, Bulgarians or Muslim Somalians, people who they perceive as different to them – they should instead be encouraged to see what they have in common. They go to the same football matches, they go to the same shops, they share the same sense of humour, they watch the same TV shows, they have they same fears and hopes for their children's futures. They need to be encouraged to see that their similarities are greater than their differences.

Tolerance should only be preached when there is irreconcilable differences between two groups; tolerance is a last resort. The problem with immigration is that the native groups do not see how much they have in common with the immigrant group – and they do have a lot in common. This message of commonality is what should be promoted – not tolerance. You tolerate things you dislike but have to go along with; this is emphatically not the message we want to send out about immigration.

So while I support British Sea Power's campaign wholeheartedly, I strongly urge that we pay close attention to the language we use and the message we send out. Tolerance is not the issue.


Anonymous said...

"White British people should not be told to tolerate Romanians, Bulgarians or Muslim Somalians..." Just how xenophobic and plain stupid that sounds! Bulgarians and Romanians are Caucasian Christians who have dignity and feelings,too. How can you tell the difference between a "white British person" and a Bulgarian person, per se? Maybe you think that Bulgarians live on trees and eat bananas? Looks like Nigel Fart-age and P-UKEIP with their verbal diarrhorea have totally brainwashed the minds of some Simple-Minded Britains. May shame always rain on you! I have always been an anglophile. Not anymore. Totally can't stand you an your smug ignorance. Fart/ PukeIP out of EU ASAP,puh-leeez.

DisGrace said...

Why can't I publish my comment?!

DisGrace said...

Whatever! Live and let live!

Nick Talbot said...

Hi Disgrace . Your comments have to be moderated before they are published. It means there is a delay between you writing your comment and it appearing on the page. Sorry about that, but it's to prevent spamming and other inappropriate posts. I might consider abolishing it.

It's always interesting to know that at least one person has comprehensively misunderstood my argument. You quote me as follows:
"White British people should not be told to tolerate Romanians, Bulgarians or Muslim Somalians..."
then accuse me of sounding xenophobic and stupid.

The problem is that you only read half of the sentence. Indeed, I think you probably only read half of the article; it looks like you abandoned the whole thing half way through that sentence because your left knee jerked upwards and hit you in the brain.

What I am arguing is that tolerance is not the same thing as true understanding. Toleration means 'putting up with it'; not liking it but agreeing to go along with it. That's not what we should be telling people. We should be telling them to genuinley understand the situation of immigrants, see them as human beings with more in common with them than they have in difference between them. Once people truly understand immigrants as human beings like them, and once they understand why immigration is good for society, they won't need to tolerate immigrants; they will welcome them.

Please try to read my article again. In general, I strongly recommend you read right to the end of an article before responding to it. Also, when you quote someone, don't take it out of context; quote the whole sentence, not just the part of it you understand. Now that you have quoted one half of my sentence, other people may see it and quote it from there. The result of this is that your misunderstanding of my argument is replicated repeatedly by others.

I understand that English may not be your first language, but you have enough of a grasp of it to launch into a tirade against me, so I feel I should treat you the same as I do any other person commenting here.

For now i'll take off the comment moderation setting, so your comments will appear immediately.

Best wishes

Adam Burrows said...

I'm not sure tolerance is the problem, Nick. At least it's better than intolerance.

For me the problem is that immigration is held up as an issue in its own right, separate from the other issues surrounding the free rein given to global capital.

People in one place can't earn a living because their industries aren't "competitive" enough so they move to a different place. Employers in that place sniff out a chance of maximising profit by outsourcing or employing new arrivals below the cost of living.

It's very easy - and more or less understandable - that people who don't have jobs, or don't have enough to get by, look for someone to blame, especially when they have a sense of entitlement that comes from living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Unfortunately, the problem is the economic system that we, and they, all depend on for our livelihoods and the further up the power and influence chain you look, the more people have to lose by trying to solve it.

This is why politicians of all hues are happier banging on about immigration or Europe or people on long-term benefits so it looks like they're doing something to help "the man in the street", when actually there is no political will to help him at all.

You're correct to stress the similarities between people of different cultures but I'd be happier to just ditch all this divisive cultural nonsense that muddies the waters of our politics and get back to a serious analysis based on economic relations. The problem is inequality on a global scale. The little cultural differences between the world's workers are irrelevant to their true political interests, and until the majority realise that they'll continue to be easy meat for dog-whistle agendas about immigration and welfare.

Nick Talbot said...


You're totally right, and tolerance is of course better than intolerance, and I have to agree with everything you say, but the argument over immigration has to be won, and people need to understand it, rather than be told to simply tolerate it.

God, I'd love to treat this as another symptom of the huge, intrinsic global inequalities of capitalism, believe me, I'm totally behind you there. But while immigration is held up as an issue, it's an argument that must be won - and indeed by arguing the points you do, that's exactly how it should be won. If people understand the points you are making, then that will help us win the argument.

My points about making people see their similarities are woven in with understanding that the immigration issue is part of the larger issue of global inequality as a result of capitalism. One of the biggest thing all working people have in common is their social class; that of course is why the Left has always been sympathetic to immigrants, because it sees class identity and solidarity as more important than ethnic identity.

I think that winning the argument will require the dissemination of the very points you are making. I'd love to ditch the divisive cultural nonsense that muddies the waters too, and replace it with the language of class consciousness, inequality and exploitation.

So, in sum, I think we are essentially in agreement here. Your points reminded me to look at the bigger though - as ever.

DisGrace said...

I can assure you, my reading comprehension is quite good actually. I can even read between the lines and your blog still sounds a bit condescending to me. Why should Bulgarians and Romanians be used as scape goats for anybody's political agenda?!! Did you know that it was your Churchill, who played God and "settled the affairs in the Balkans" together with Stalin on 9th October 1944, leaving Bulgaria and Romania to the ex-Soviet Union and keeping ex-Yugoslavia and Greece for the West? Well, reap what you have sown now. I agree with everything Adam Burrows said. The fact that Fartage,the clown won so many seats after the local elections speaks volumes!Best wishes to you!

Nick Talbot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Talbot said...

Disgrace - Look, you are completely misunderstanding my argument, but I'll try again. "Why should Bulgarians and Romanians be used as scape goats for anybody's political agenda?!!"

I'm not saying they should. I'm saying the opposite. I'm saying immigrants should be welcomed. I'm saying the opposite of what UKIP are saying. The reason i say immigrants shouldn't be tolerated is because tolerating something means putting up with something you disagree with. If someone tolerates immigrants it means they disagree with immigration but they just put up with it. I'm saying people should not disagree with immigration, they should welcome it.

This is a misunderstanding based on the fact that you don't fully understand the word tolerance. It doesn't mean what you think it means. It's not the same as 'welcome' or 'agree with'. It's actually quite a negative word, because it involves accepting something you dislike. You can call me smug and ignorant all you like but you obviously don't understand what I'm saying. I tried to explain in my last post but you just didn't think carefully about what i was saying, and once again launched into a tirade of insults. As I explained above, I also totally agree with Adam as well.

DisGrace said...

Dear Nick,

Thank you for being an English teacher/preacher, explaining the meaning of the word "tolerance" to me but you are the one who's having beef with that word in the first place, not me.

I really appreciate your concern and views on immigration but it's the small details of your reasoning that inflamed me and I felt the need to write you back.
You mentioned that Bulgarians, Romanians and Muslim Somalis were perceived as being different to British. Instead of "tolerating"="putting up with them", you have to highlight the things we have in common - such as music,shopping,football club preferences,etc..
Have you ever seen a Muslim woman (Somali or not) head-to toe in burqa jumping at a rock gig at O2 or whistling at a football match at Wembly?!! I can't even spin those images in my head out of respect to those people and their beliefs.

On the other hand, I refuse to believe that Bulgarians and Romanians are perceived as being different by the regular British people. It's the crappy politicians and journalists that make a mountain out of a molehill. It's the rising number of PUKIP heads that are buying this.

To all the PUKIP heads (maybe the deleted comment was made by one of them) - not everyone is packing their luggage for UK. Trust me, there are better places in this world. Sorry to rain on your parade but it's true.

Seriously, all of you British people - English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish,Pakistanis, West Indians, Ganaians, etc... are very welcome( see, I know the meaning of that word) to our sunny, sandy beaches (no stiff upper lip attached).

Sincerely yours,
The constant language proficiency failure

Nick Talbot said...

(I give up)

ariel said...

haha, the argument with DisGrace. Anyway, I completely agree with Nick. 'Tolerance' is not an ideal we for which we should strive, and the words we use make a bigger difference than many realize or want to admit.