Is Tolerance In Terminal Decline?

Are we becoming increasingly intolerant as a society?

With social, political, economic and racial boundaries in flux in the face of globalisation, cosmopolitanism and tele-communications advances, are we are becoming more intolerant to differences and those dissimilar to ourselves? Sensationalism and the tabloidization of the UK mainstream media frequently serve to enhance boundaries between ourselves and the ‘other’ and exacerbate insecurities underlining social structures and communities. The collapse of temporal and spatial boundaries online within the new global public sphere results in social media platforms, blogs, news sites and chat rooms serving as spaces where individuals are able to seek and locate affirmation for their intolerances with wider political, social and racial consequences.

Social intolerance is evident in the substance of the virulent opposition to same sex marriage on display within both the British and French political terrains presently.  Capitalism and neo-liberalism have facilitated the development of multiple identities and lifestyles which have flourished and moved from the margins into the mainstream of the public sphere and public life. This is demonstrated by the passing of laws allowing civil partnerships as well as same-sex couples to adopt children. Yet despite this citizens fear the challenge to a traditionalist conventional family way of life which becomes conflated with other grievances related to wider social and economic turmoil. Protest in all its forms is becoming a permanent feature both in the newspaper headlines and on the city streets as organisations mobilise more effectively around controversial issues using online tools and social media.  Social grievances therefore build around issues and specific Governmental policy which fragments, divides and disunites public opinion. A culture of distance translates into a culture of othering as identity politics comes to separate us and divide us.

Social intolerance is welcomed by the politically intolerant as exemplified by the rise of right wing populist parties on the UK and European political stage. Figures such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage benefit from a democratic political system increasingly out of touch with its citizens as well as a flailing economic structure that appears to benefit corporate giants ID-100110730and oligopolies.  Professionalization and the ‘presidentialisation’ of politics we have seen in the spin of the Blair years and the public relations management of the Thatcher years have bred a public intolerance of and scepticism towards politicians. Authenticity is what citizens seek and find in the caricatures of figures such as Nigel Farage and his portrayal as an ordinary pint and cigarette in hand British citizen who is able to manipulate social insecurities for the purpose of political ends. Globalisation and high levels of worldwide migration have resulted in the emergence of the cosmopolitan citizen with allegiances and connections beyond the boundaries of the nation state which are now sustained through the global online telecommunications world.  Citizens with various religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations and political beliefs co-exist in spatial terms across cities, towns and villages and in temporal terms through the new online world. The physical visibility of difference in our physical and virtual day to day lives is manipulated by the mainstream media who serve to ignite fears of immigration levels and cultivate an intolerance which feeds into the political system.

Racial intolerance is also emerging as we see societies and communities more polarised than ever in the face of the so-called war on global terrorism. The word terrorism itself defies a concrete definition and is also a politically divisive and disputed term as goes the saying that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. The idea of a ‘global war on terror’ targeting an axis of evil embedded in specific nation states has resulted in associations between specific nationalities and religions being equated with terrorism, breeding racial intolerance and feeding the terrorism the global war actually sought to destroy. Consequences of cultural intolerance are becomingly increasingly grave. The storming of the American embassy in Benghazi in September 2012 in response to the viral distribution online of an offensive Californian film resulted in the death of the American ambassador. In this way the new global online sphere where temporal and spatial boundaries have collapsed serves as a terrain for the distribution of intolerance as the balancing of freedoms and responsibilities on a global and transnational scale, where varying cultures co-exist, is an ever increasing challenge.

Finally we see an economic intolerance emerging out of the current global crisis facing many capitalist Governments and the resultant hardship experienced by citizens. Banks and large multinational corporations have become a target for public intolerance as demonstrated by the protests of the anti-capitalist Occupy Movement as well as protest group UK Uncut against corporation taxes. Both movements specifically target visible centres of economic power to protest against perceived societal inequalities and draw attention to the authority wielded by these oligopolistic organisations through their international reach. Similarly throughout the European Union an intolerance has developed for cuts to welfare and the state that are enforced by Governments and the European Union to reduce budget deficits as well as the bailout funds distributed by the more prosperous to countries in more severe economic turmoil. In the face of economic hardships citizens throughout Europe are finding day to day living increasingly intolerable, which in turn results in an increasing economic intolerance for international policy.

Tolerance itself however is a paradox as an open and tolerant society cannot survive unless tolerance itself is limited. Opposition to same sex marriages raises the question as to whether we are endangering civil liberties in a libertarian societal system by preventing hybrid identities and alternative ways of life from entering the mainstream? In terms of the political intolerance displayed by the right wing populist parties we must bear in mind that silencing those we despise costs us political legitimacy. John Stuart Mill talks of the need for us to tolerate even the speech we hate as the truth will emerge, but in terms of racial intolerance this can often result in the spreading of untruths and incitement of racially violent acts. Economic intolerance is born out of economic hardship as budget deficits and bailout funds agreed on an international level have direct implications for the day to day lives of citizens. Are we then becoming increasingly intolerant in the face of a global communications system that provides a platform for the individual to reverse the media producer /consumer relationship, allows for selectively in consumption of media texts and also unites fragmented cosmopolitan identities? Or perhaps the limits of our tolerance are simply being re-defined and negotiated in the face of a rapidly changing social, political, racial and economic world.

Emma Rees is studying a Masters in Politics & Communications at the LSE


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