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The Oppression of “Tolerance”


Two years ago I had the opportunity to provide a workshop on the issue of tolerance, human rights, and peace with the participation of activists from the Caucasus, Germany, and Latin America. The perspectives of participants from Latin America toward the topic brought me to the decision to explore it a bit deeper, to look to the issue, and try to analyze it, from other perspectives. The following article is aimed to explore and critically analyze the definition of tolerance and to discuss its usefulness and applicability to conflict transformation strategies, and its potentially oppressive effect.

My small study of internet resources, aimed at comprehending the diversity of understandings of the definition of tolerance, has shown that the general meaning of tolerance is the ability to accept something even while disapproving of it. “In social, cultural and religious contexts, Toleration and tolerance are terms used to describe attitudes which are “tolerant” (or moderately respectful) of practices or group memberships that may be disapproved of by those in the majority” ( In analyzing the definition, I have paid special attention to the word “majority.” It seems to me that, according to this definition, tolerance is about relationships between majorities and minorities, about those who have power versus those who don’t.

Rainer Forst, Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy at Cambridge University, divides tolerance into a “permission” conception and a “respect” conception in the publication “Tolerance in Conflict. History, Content and Presence of a Controversial Concept” ( The first conception is that you can only tolerate something if you are operating from a position of power and dominance; giving someone permission to do something, if you are in a position of domination over them. It means no longer persecuting that group but also not giving them equal rights. At the same time, however, Forst reveals the dynamic of an emancipatory dimension of tolerance when it functions as a strategy to resist domination. If minority groups claim their (equal) rights through invoking tolerance, they invoke a respect conception of tolerance.

Tolerance matters are often used in peace building, including ethno-political issues and conflicts; many trainings and conferences on tolerance building between conflicting societies have been organized, and in the case of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, for more than 15 years tolerance building activities have been delivered for different target groups from countries and regions divided by conflict. Let’s try together to explore their possibilities for success. If we agree that tolerance has an element of power relationships, we need to clarify for ourselves which conflicting party is the majority, and which is the minority; which has the power to tolerate, and which one needs to be adapted to? Of course, I am waiting to readers’ comments to both, but let’s first explore a bit deeper. Analyzing tolerance, we can divide it into 3 components:

  1. Objection: we can only say we tolerate something, if we think it is wrong. If we think it is good, we would not speak of toleration; if we think it is interesting but strange, we would also not speak of toleration.
  2. Acceptance: if we can provide proper rational, reasoned justification for why this something should be tolerated.
  3. Rejection: if we can provide proper, rational, reasoned justification why this something goes beyond the limits of tolerance, e.g., racism, homophobia.

Although it is common knowledge that in armed ethno-political conflicts there are no winners and only losers, in societal perceptions this is not always the case. Usually, the conflict divides the conflicting societies into “perpetrators” and “victims”; different perceptions on “perpetrators” and “victims” are strongly cultivated within the countries in conflict. This pushes the division deeper and deeper. Because of these unequal positions, it is unlikely–or even impossible–that tolerance building strategies within these countries or regions will work. From a discursive perspective there are a number of tensions within these arguments. Where do the power relations figure in this analysis? Who decides what is “proper” justification or defines the limits of “rationality”? If the concept of “tolerance” already constitutes the candidate for tolerance as deficient, deviant, wrong, then how can it have the positive twist?

Another perspective is the definition of tolerance as “The capacity to endure hardship or pain”  ( Therefore, in conflicting societies where the victim image is actively cultivated, it is almost impossible to achieve a situation in which “victims” will ever respect the position of “perpetrators;” wouldn’t that mean that they “tolerate” the perpetration against themselves? Consequently, I see here an element of oppression; it seems to me that we press the parties to respect or accept each others’ positions, although without attempting to create a space for them to understand each other’s position; it seems to me that ones with “power” attempt to force “tolerance” toward them on those without “power.”

Because of all of the above, I perceive tolerance more as an obstacle to achieving sustainable peace than as a supporting method, even if only because there is a great element of oppression and of prioritizing power in it.

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Tolerate definition | Alleverythingr
Jul 14, 2012 4:00

[…] Caucasus Edition – The Oppression of “Tolerance” […]

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