After the brutal murder of a British serviceman near his barracks the most normal response is horror. Horror gives way to anger, anger at the perpetrators and anger at the systems which created them. The anger of the English Defence League was directed against the Islamic Extremists who had manufactured the young terrorists who hacked Lee Rigby to death. They staged a march in the town, rallying support for the British army and demonstrating that such acts would not be tolerated.
Such people would not be tolerated.
In a display of tolerance, the local Mosque made tea for those furious protestors who had come to tell them to stop murdering the favourite sons. Like a spoon of sugar in a hot brew, the tension dissolved and all were with all.
The Islamic community appeased their critics by demonstrating that they are with Us, not with Them. Tea, Football, all things British to show commonality. What can a British person do but accept these gestures, these tokens of solidarity? They become One Of Us.
The feeling of inclusion here is dependent upon a prior ideal of society. The extent to which a person or a community can conform to this highly held standard will determine the form of their fellowship with others.
Would the picture have been quite so perfect if they had passed a shisha pipe?
Though Britain’s colonialism is hastily a forgotten footnote in her autobiography, its lessons have echoed through the generations. The presumptuous imposition of one ideal upon the ‘lesser’ other’s, the posturing of one people as benevolent host of another, that one people are ahead of another; this is the radical reshaping of a society which Imperialism engenders. Remember that the language of intellect, of politics and religion was Latin for centuries after the Empire ceased dictating from Rome.
It is assumed that Western style liberal democracy is the ideal for which all should strive and which the few have achieved. Thus we Brits are in the end times, the eschaton, the end of history. There’s nowhere to go from here. Since we sit at the end, we reach back to those at the beginning as angels from the heavens, enlightening the darkness of the world.
We did, after all, call our African colonies the ‘dark continent’.
Today we cannot mediate our contact with these Others through trade, military and religious mission. Their faces are beamed to our televisions. They are our doctors, neighbours, friends. In such immediacy our bigoted presumptions are shown in their entire ugliness. Yet like the Islamic Extremist, the Bigot is always ‘my dad’ or ‘that bloke at the pub’, always an Other who is hastily disowned.
Unless of course one proves that they really are One Of Us: Tea and biscuits.
Assent to the idealised society is then the foundation of community. What is said, believed or done in private doesn’t need to interfere with this. One can be racist in private but still buy cigarettes from the Indian shop keeper on the corner. This maintains a certain form of peace yet is riddled with contradictions and presumptions. The extent to which these can be manipulated or conformed to are the essence of our modern tolerance.
What cannot be tolerated is a deviation from the ideal. Liberals have been quick to wave the flag of gay marriage without asking the broader question of the substance or justification of the institution. So long as the gays can conform to, or indeed manipulate, the prevailing discourse then their acceptance can be assured. Not that they, or any other group, can be accepted on their own terms.
That bigots can’t be tolerated speaks to the limits of our tolerance. It is a tolerance of taste, not of the substance of a human person.
Ian Watkins was convicted of horrendous crimes against vulnerable children. He is a paedophile and a rapist. He is a human being. The response of the haughty social media pundits was to scream for his head.
This kind of deviation is the vile, unwelcome intrusion of the private reality into the facade created by public speech.
By exorcising the murderer, paedophile and bigot the majority maintain the hegemony of unadmitted presumptions. It is an offence to include such people in the category of ‘human’. Yet to be offended by such people is to contradict the essential truth of our own common being, and common weakness, with fellow human beings. To claim a kind of being-together which transcends tea and biscuits is then a tolerance grounded in a reality more substantial than Great Britain.