From a young age, I remember the term “tolerance” popping up in textbooks and classrooms every now and then. It would occasionally rise up to greet us, to remind Singaporeans of the importance of being understanding of all opinions and behaviours—even the ones that they might not personally endorse.
On the surface, the idea of tolerance seems almost idyllic. In a multiracial and religious society like Singapore’s, surely the best way to sort out differences is to pretend they’re not there, right?
In an opinion piece for The Straits Times, writer Devadas Krishnadasm laments that tolerance alone simply doesn’t cut it anymore. In the long run, sweeping grievances under the rug merely creates an eco chamber of covert disdain to simmer—which can eventually lead to far more sinister outcomes.
Tolerance works, until it doesn’t. The moment we allow ourselves to succumb to the divisive dislike for someone or something different from us, tensions have already birthed.
According to philosopher Karl Popper, the paradox of tolerance states that “if we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
In other words, in being an inherently and completely tolerant society, we will eventually die to the hands of the intolerant in trying to fulfil this very principal.
While that may be a lot to take in, the underlying mechanism where the paradox lies is simply the fact that tolerance is not a self-preserving virtue. Upholding it will eventually also lead to its extinction. As such, when does it begin to become dangerous and should we be worried?
When a society extends limitless tolerance towards those of all views and behaviours, it begs the question, how much is too much? In such cases, the authorities and law of a society, nation, or group step in to provide checks and balances.
Humanity is guided by a set of principles and laws that generally govern the way we live and help to maintain order in any society. These are the same set of laws that have been passed down and improved upon through countless civilisations and societies, defining socially and lawfully acceptable behaviours based on a general consensus.
The law is a general projection of what is tolerated in society. An organisation can be permitted to exist, until it permits rape. A contrarian has every right to post an unpopular comment, until it violates media laws.
The Truelove.Is movement—a campaign aimed at Christians with unwanted same-sex attraction—shot to notoriety when netizens caught wind of their debut video calling for gay Christians to “come out and come home”, accusing them of conversion therapy under the guise of acceptance.
In a second video entitled #WeExist, the Truelove.Is team has made a plea claiming that they have been misunderstood, excluded, and silenced.
As a guest on Ministry of Funny’s Yah Lah BUT… podcast, a member of the Truelove.Is movement quoted a director at the inter-varsity LGBT network, saying that groups such as City Revival have “certain rights to practise and live out their faith and sexuality”, and that we “shouldn’t be throwing stones into each others’ houses”.
OG influencer Xiaxue is another who has found herself in the crossfire of drama more times than she can remember. Her recent case has hit especially hard, with petitions and police reports having been lodged against her. There’s a particular mob of netizens determined to strip her of all sources of income and to put an end to her career—in other words, to ‘cancel’ her.
Since then, Xiaxue has said her piece on ‘cancel culture’ in a video which has allowed her to express some crucial points on intolerance and tolerance alike. In her 19-minute long IGTV video, Xiaxue points out the malicious intent of those who partake in cancel culture, setting them apart from plain boycotters.
Alfian Sa’at is one Singaporean who’s unabashed about his disdain for the bigoted. He has taken to Facebook to air his grievances about the Xiaxue matter, a writer’s encounter with an allegedly lowly-paid dishwasher, and other social issues.
As with all opinions, his posts have been met with both support and disagreement. Those who find that his words resonate so deeply with them have re-shared his pieces and have been sure to let him know by dropping a comment or two below his posts.
It is important to realise that one can tolerate ideas without respecting them or giving them credit as equally valid. Sometimes, tolerance really is just… that. If we acknowledge that very different and conflicting views can co-exist without a need to constantly cancel each other out, tolerance becomes less of a distant dream.
There is, however, this notion that if you don’t explicitly denounce things, it means you approve or enable it, as Reddit user JanovichDayZ puts it. This birthed the belief that it is insufficient to be on the fence about something, and that you instead have to be an “anti” supporter, lest you stand on the side of the oppressor.
As we’ve seen in the recent #BlackLivesMatter movement, it isn’t enough to simply not be racist—you have to be anti-racist.
There are others who feel that the paradox of tolerance operates on a slippery slope fallacy, in which it focuses on the extreme hypotheticals—eradicating the tolerant completely and overlooking the main issue on hand.
There is no proof that such an extreme outcome will, in fact, occur, unfairly tainting the argument of tolerance based on something that is unsubstantiated.
By its very nature as a paradox, there isn’t a cookie-cutter solution to simply wish away our problems. The truth is that there never will be a definitive way to solve the issue in question, making it a paradox in the first place.
As long as the concept of tolerance exists, so will the paradox that surrounds it. A marketplace and exchange of ideas will decide what is acceptable and what is not, but for that to happen, unpopular or “bad” ideas need to be given a change to enter that marketplace in the first place. The sooner we learn to accept that and grow to be wiser in picking our battles, the easier it will be for us to coexist.
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