There was a fantastic double event at the London School of Economics on Wednesday 20 June when His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave a speech as a prelude to a conference on Tolerance in a Just and Fair Society, held to mark the tenth anniversary of the Frederick Bonnart-Braunthal Trust. The trust’s purpose is to combat intolerance by sponsoring relevant academic work at postgraduate level.
It was founder Frederick Bonnart‘s background in pre-war Vienna, where his father was a Social Democrat newspaper editor, and his early experiences as a refugee with his family in Britain, that fired his zeal for tolerance. His driving idea in founding the trust was to bring together scholarship with the search for practical results. He never, however, defined precisely what he meant by intolerance.
Wednesday’s conference was opened by a speech by Lord Bhikhu Parekh, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Westminster, and ended with reflections by Trevor Phillips, outgoing Chair of the Equality and Human Rights commission. Among other speakers were four scholars funded by the trust at LSE and University College London.
The conference considered the nature of intolerance and the relevance of scholarship to combating it. At the level of moral theory, few would have any doubt that tolerance is a good thing – it seems so obvious, like kindness to animals. But is it that simple? Are there limits to the kind of behaviour, or even of belief, that deserve tolerance?
Surely yes – at least for behaviour. What are those limits? How far should society tolerate those who are not themselves tolerant – who may be hostile to our values, even a threat to our society? And what is the basis for regarding tolerance as good? Is it simply a sensible rule of behaviour in a society where there are many beliefs and no common consensus on what is right? Is it not a concept that is coupled with doubt and weakness: if you are absolutely convinced that your religion or political beliefs are right, why should you be tolerant? Lenin was not. St Paul had his limits.
A more robust way of looking at it is that it is derived from the rights of individuals. This would mean that I have to tolerate the views of others because others are of equal value to myself. Tolerance is necessary in a just and fair society not only because it is a sensible rule of the road but because it is just and fair.
Lord Parekh considered what tolerance actually is – how far it is rooted in a liberal Western tradition, and whether it means anything at all in some other traditions. And is it always a virtue? Perhaps not, if you view tolerance as rooted in the condescending kindness or indifference of the tolerator rather than the equal value of each individual human being.
Another connection between scholarship and the battle for tolerance is the science of human behaviour. Bonnart scholars come from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, but most have in common that they are studying, in different contexts and settings, how human beings behave towards each other. If tolerance is such an obvious virtue, how come there is so much intolerance about? With the stresses of a broken economy and other pressures, are we becoming less tolerant? What forms does intolerance take and what are avenues for dealing with it? What is the role of the law? The four scholars who presented their work led into this territory. Their topics include the nature of torture, the motivation of border vigilantes in the southern US, the management of the Palestinian cultural heritage and the precarious status of immigrant communities in and around Bangladesh.
It would be wrong to claim that the conference reached firm conclusion on all these issues. But it is clear that scholarship – careful, dispassionate, well-disciplined, and above all independent of those who have interests in reaching particular conclusions in a field which carries a strong political charge – has a major role in understanding what a just, fair – and tolerant – society means, and in moving towards it.
With no family of his own, Bonnart determined his own legacy: a series of grants for students — the Bonnart-Braunthal Scholarship — aimed at tackling the causes and consequences of intolerance. This conference was part of that legacy.
John Howe is a trustee of the Frederick Bonnart-Braunthal Trust.