Respect and tolerance are not what we need for Europe’s diversity

Voltaire (
Voltaire (

Michiel Luining ᅵ

Today multiculturalism is said to have failed in Europe. We can recall the statement made by Angela Merkel in 2010 on the topic. Soon after, David Cameron also declared the end of multiculturalism, and similar remarks emerged in political debates in the Netherlands as well as in other countries. In recent times we have seen an increase of nationalist movements many of which are fuelled by anti-Islam and anti-immigrant sentiments. Simultaneously, we witnessed growing feelings of resent within immigrant and minority populations towards their host countries and cultures. All in all, it would seem that we are experiencing a downward spiral.

In response to this, idealistic calls have been made in favour of respect, tolerance, consensus and mutual understanding in order to transcend this last decade’s polarising cycle. However, these calls are wrong. Respect is not what we need, and neither are the current thoughts on tolerance. In order to sustain a democratic and tolerant society, we need to get rid of the naive mindset that lies beneath such claims; those that fail to consider realistic solutions and opportunities that are vital for a free society. In part, the problem lies in the multicultural categorisation that has taken place, and further still in the way is the concept of tolerance that is being used by many people noways.

“Respect is not what we need, and neither are the current thoughts on tolerance….”

Although it is difficult to discuss multiculturalism (as the word has many meanings), its basis lies in identifying groups based on political considerations – typically by ethnicity – in order to remove stigmatisation and exclusion in relation to such groups. Today, instead of accepting difference as an integral part of (considerate) co-existence, the liberal multicultural state facilitates rigid differences.

This, in turn, favours the emergence of parallel societies in Europe. The state has become a helpless witness to outbreaks of ethnic and religious violence. Although multiculturalism has broken through the oppressing myth of a homogenous nation, the stereotypical classification of the population into homogenised groups along ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines is becoming a fact. A republican mindset in which ethnicity, religion, culture and so forth do not matter as long as everyone is a participative democratic citizen – and becomes a citizen of the nation through this practice – has not been established.

“The stereotypical classification is becoming a fact…”

Currently, the state tries to solve ethnic or cultural issues by identifying an appropriate negotiating partner who then becomes the sole representative of that particular group. The case, then, is no longer about tolerance or recognition, but about power: who the representative is and how this entity or person determines the classification of this subgroup and, incidentally, its freedom. This has become a deeply anti-democratic feature of multicultural society, one that solves problems by exporting them into the patriarchies of communities defined in terms of religion or ethnicity. A hybrid space allowing for possible transformations of multiple individual identities is made difficult.

In other words, instead of opposing different visions of society and futures cutting across cultures, we are faced with matters predominantly structured in a conflict of cultures. Additionally, there is the European phenomenon of moral relativism in which multiculturalism dissolves national identity, shared values and collective identity, making it impossible for groups to integrate because there is nothing to integrate into. The biggest concern is a dangerous utopian objective in prevailing public discourse that tries to remedy the current polarisation and exclusion; unfortunately it will lead to disappointment and, consequently, to intolerance.

“The biggest concern is a dangerous utopian objective in prevailing public discourse…”

Our freedom of expression is also at stake. One clear example of this mindset is A European Framework National Statute For The Promotion of Tolerance, which was circulated last year by the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation and compromises former heads of states and government leaders[1]. They wished to establish national surveillance units to monitor citizens suspected of ‘intolerance’, and promote supportive regulations to create a climate of tolerance. As one can read in the statute, tolerance is defined as ‘an open mind to unfamiliar ideas and ways of life’, stating that individuals and groups should ‘make mutual concessions to each other’ with ‘respect for the distinctive characteristics of diverse groups.’

At first this seems quite innocent, even praiseworthy. Let’s say that respect for certain religious holidays and traditional clothing will not be a problem and is relatively easy to digest. But the idea that one has to respect the comparison of gays with pigs or the inequality of men and women within Islam will be rather difficult to swallow. In that same vein, it would just be just as hard for others to respect certain expressive, liberal and hedonistic behaviours. Why should one show respect or consider making concessions in one’s way of life if one deems it essentially wrong? Tolerance today apparently means showing interest in someone’s background from which understanding, and possibly even appreciation, will grow.

“Why should one respect something that seems essentially wrong?”

However, the point is that tolerance has nothing to do with showing interest, respect or making concessions. Tolerance is about virtuous behaviour – the virtue to condone the norms and values of others, even though you disagree with them. Or, as Voltaire supposedly wrote: ‘I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write’. Tolerance is a concept that plays a part when we find something despicable, not something that we respect. Indeed, as Voltaire wrote: ‘I detest’.

The Council turns the notion of tolerance upside down, which could be an imminent threat for the freedom of expression: an intolerant process itself. The danger is that correctness will be more important than freedom of expression. The consequence could be that the person expressing an opinion will feel restricted and will feel obliged to be careful, while it is the person receiving an unpleasant opinion who should nurture his/her virtue of forbearance. What if criticasters had to take into account groups that do not feel ‘respected’?

“The Council turns the notion of tolerance upside down…”

The risk is that they will downplay themselves. It will lead to a situation where a democratic society of discussion, debate and circulating thoughts is severely restrained. The polemic, the satire and the genre of ridicule will disappear. Moreover, the brave intentions to promote interest in other cultures and defend multicultural diversity carries a treacherous thought as well. Often it is said that multiculturalism, and our openness towards it, would enrich our culture and our lives.

This sets a perilous precedent. Tolerance is then viewed as ‘utilitarian’ instead of a virtue, leading to a dangerous backlash when other cultural expressions do not enrich our lives at all. We should tolerate for the mere philosophical and ethical reason, not because it benefits us. Otherwise it could produce intolerance for anything being different when the benefit is not clear or non-existent.

In conclusion, the calls for respect, consensus and ´tolerance´ will have a positive impact on some matters, but in the long run they are fallacious. The potential of a mindset where one can actually be tolerant, that is to say condone something that seems completely appalling and disagreeable, is severely under threat, or almost impossible. These calls would then lead to frustration and intolerance when no ‘integration’, ‘consensus’ or ‘respect’ is perceived by participants in society, as well as a limitation to freedom of expression. Tolerance is difficult, a virtue, and involves matters we do not understand or respect. Only with this mindset can one undertake to restore tranquillity in society in which democracy and freedom of expression are preserved.


profile_michielMichiel Luining, Historian

Michiel is from the Netherlands and has a broad academic interest in various topics like history, politics and philosophy. He graduated in History at Leiden University and also studied at the University of Amsterdam and at American University in Washington DC. Currently he is a Master student of Euroculture at the University of Groningen and Göttingen.

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