On Respect and Tolerance

by Eneko Herran Lekunberri – Sociologist

The article locates the concepts of respect and tolerance within the ambit of the relationships between individuals and social groups.  Eneko Herran extracts a fundamental difference: Respect is established between equals “while tolerance is a vertical concept, typical of a stance that believes to be superior and therefore entitled to mark out the boundaries of what is tolerable and thus impose its views of the permissible on the tolerated.”

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Until not so long ago, if a notion ever emerged to claim a level playing field between the different, whether on grounds of sex, race and religion, or as a matter of ideology, social position or any of the multiple reasons that we humans have endemically given to ourselves in order to differentiate from each other, this was the notion of ‘respect’. The idea behind the notion of respect was not so much to obliterate diversity but to end with the violation of rights that some imposed on others under self-assumed supremacies, whether in quantitative (the highest number) or qualitative terms (ethnic, cultural, moral … or just physical superiority).

Respect was thus understood as opposed to every variety of imposition, which have been continually practiced through history to the delight of some and the derision of “the others”; some “others” who were always lower or at least not worthy of equal opportunities; some “others” who were tolerated as individuals subjected to exploitation to the extent that the private benefit extracted from them was required by the dominant or the privileged groups (the tolerant).

Respect was therefore a term referring to the aspiration of transcending (exceeding) the old precept of tolerance. Tolerance, in turn, is a concept that stems from the assumption of a hierarchical model where some are placed above others, and a concept that refers to such practices as archaic as carried out in the first models of society which we have knowledges of (certainly not a knowledge). Tolerance was the logical consequence of the very implementation of exploitation, yet not direct extermination of the “other”. In other words, for their own benefit, some people consent other people in order to take advantage. If these “others” dare to reveal, or rebel against the situation, tolerance is over. It is that simple and that pragmatic, although, obviously, there is room for nuances.

Respect, moreover, is based on the belief that, beyond the inequalities that can effectively take place between various peoples and individuals, certain equality should prevail which makes people equivalent in terms of rights and opportunities for advancement. The idea is to eliminate prejudice and to remove any ethnocentric behaviour by people and any egocentric conduct by individuals, as far as possible. While tolerance is a vertical concept, typical of a stance that believes to be superior and therefore entitled to mark out the boundaries of what is tolerable and thus impose its views of the permissible on the tolerated, respect is developed as a horizontal concept, and aims at bringing coexistence among the different without, at least by definition, having to establish differences in rank (there is no upper and no lower rank). In short, respect is a concept that aspires to be valid across different cultures, but also between opponents, be they groups or individuals with different options and interests within the same social body.

The problem, however, is that respect understood in this way, i.e., in relation to “others”, is turned into a distorted word as soon as one begins to relate the verb “to respect” with others such as “to obey”. We then speak of “respecting parents,” “respecting certain precepts”, “respecting the law” … Multiple expressions where the word “to respect” becomes a mere synonym of the words “to subordinate”, “to accept”, “to comply” … which is quite perversely unreasonable since one can perfectly obey or abide by a law that does not deserve the slightest respect. It seems to me, therefore, that in part because of these new uses of the word ‘respect’, the aspirations or claims that it once had at the social level are falling into disuse.

In such a context it is no coincidence that over the past few years, tolerance is back in fashion. That references to respect are suddenly relegated and replaced by mere references to tolerance is symptomatic of the way forward those proclaiming its virtues foresee for the future. Similarly, from the perspective of those who aspire to (be) respect(ed), it can only be seen as a worrying phenomenon: From respect bridges of coexistence can be built; from tolerance just about temporary structures to underpin non-confrontation, hanging walkways just as durable as the docility that the tolerated will allow.

All of this is even more worrying if we consider the new conceptual twist that is taking place. The new trend now is to talk about “zero tolerance”. In no time we have moved from the slogan “through tolerance towards respect” to “from tolerance to zero tolerance”. Forced to swallow the validity of “the tolerant vs. the non-tolerant” divide from breakfast to dinner… Compelled to plunge over and over again into the placid sea of tolerance, the highest social virtue and source of life… it now turns out that it is time to return to the old good times when the motto “no water to the enemy” prevailed… and “if in the dessert, salted cod”.

It seems that after repeating the customary “we, the democrats” for years and years and a million times a day, just as much as the democrats are prepared to enact all kind of restrictions to the very foundations of democracy, the tolerant too, following a similar exercise may already digest the discourse of zero tolerance and continue to proclaim themselves as being tolerant without the slightest hint of shame.

In this day and age one can no longer be surprised with anything, so the seeming paradox of the tolerant urging zero tolerance can be even perfectly acceptable. The surprising thing would be that someday, out of a fit of frankness, we found ourselves hearing the following: “The others are bad. Yes, very bad. This is precisely why they are ‘the others’. But we can and are indeed prepared to be worse”. It would be a sign that facile one-line rattling gives way to open, honest talk.

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Original title “Cero en tolerancia“. Translated and edited by Imanol Galfarsoro

Picture courtesy Steve Jurvetson, used in accordance with Creative Commons licence.

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