The Political Expat: Let's talk tolerance

The Political Expat: Let's talk tolerance

Tolerance. The word is on many lips and in many newspaper articles these days... and not just in the Netherlands. Many of us lament what we see as the growing lack of it in the social fabric of our host country. But what does it mean, really?

What does "tolerance" mean?

I would argue that the importance of understanding exactly what we mean when we use a word is equal to the importance of the conversation it’s being used in. And the conversation around the word "tolerance," is one which is dictating how we are, and will be, living together, locally and across the world.

But what does it mean? When all else fails, I go to my dictionaries. What I found was enlightening:
 From tol·er·ance - noun : a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.
 From Wikipedia: Tolerance or toleration is the practice of permitting a thing of which one disapproves, such as social, ethnic, sexual, or religious practices.

The difference between the two definitions may seem slight, but we should acknowledge it if we are to understand the changes going on in our land, the policies some factions of our government are advocating, and why many citizens are supporting these policies, tacitly or actively.

When I knew I would be migrating to the Netherlands, I did my homework: I searched the internet, the library, the bookstores. I read Gert Mak’s "A short History of Amsterdam," and struggled through the immigration programme.

The definition of tolerance that jumped off the pages of the books, flowed from the mouths of my teachers and new friends, and has been spread across the world by the Dutch government’s marketing machine... was the first one. But living here has taught me that the second definition is closer to reality. The difference is in the word "disapproves."

The example of the "Red Light District"

Take the Red Light District in Amsterdam, why it exists, and why the city leaders are trying to change its nature. Simply put, it exists not, as many tourists think, because the Dutch approve of prostitution - but because they disapprove of it. They are, after all, a practical people. They know prostitution has existed throughout mankind’s history, and that they will not stamp it out.

So rather than let it spread across their towns and cities, they contain it in a well-defined area that the tourists (and their euros) can find, but that they can avoid in their day-to-day lives.

I would argue that this underlying disapproval of prostitution, and the mess they see as having developed because they have tolerated it (and the stag parties) too much, is why they are moving prostitutes out and fashion designers into the windows.

Dutch "tolerance"

Now, historically, tolerance is the trait which has served the Dutch best in their business dealings with cultures around the world. As their population began to include immigrants and refugees from these varied cultures, they continued to tolerate them and their customs.

The credo has been, until recently: we will tolerate you, your customs, and your clothing, so long as you do not get in our face with it. This attitude has worked pretty well until recently - at least as far as the Dutch were concerned.

Along the way, however, we - and the Dutch - have lost sight of how much they disapprove of the things they have tolerated in order to conduct business inside and outside of the country.

Now, with a growing immigrant population, the intermingling among our young people, and a financial crisis which has us looking for scapegoats (as financial crises tend to do), the differences between our cultures and theirs is up close and personal, testing their patience… and their tolerance.

Today, you will find many Dutch who openly admit to being less tolerant than before. It has made it difficult, sometimes, for me to hold onto my own tolerance for what I see as Dutch intolerance (known as "the paradox of intolerance").

Tolerance has two sides..

But I am beginning to rethink things: while I would argue for multiculturalism (definition to be found in your dictionary), and for the kind of tolerance that precludes bigotry, I am beginning to have sympathy for their difficulty with the kind of tolerance that includes accepting so many things they patently disapprove of.

Because tolerance has two sides, doesn’t it? I disapprove of homophobia, so won’t tolerate city clerks who refuse to perform weddings for same sex couples. I disapprove of racism, so won’t tolerate humour dependant on it. I can easily tolerate head scarves, but am unsure about Burqas. I suppose I would vote to tolerate them until we are all sure one way or the other.

Should doctors tolerate female castration, because it is the custom within a particular culture? That is a pretty strong no for me. Should we tolerate our neighbour’s shop being looted because the guys who did it feel "dispossessed?" No again. There are things, if given a choice, that I won’t tolerate. Neither should you. And neither should the Dutch.

Dutch are as tolerant as you

Let’s get honest with each other: the individual Nederlander is no more or less tolerant than anyone else. As a nation, they are no more - or less - tolerant than other western nations.

Say it out loud; own this truth and it will set you (and our Dutch hosts) free. Only then will we be able to have an open and honest discussion about what we, as a society increasingly made up of many peoples and customs, are willing to tolerate.

It won’t be easy, but the Dutch are also famous for another trait that will in handy: compromise. If we work it through, compromising here and there, and simply being as tolerant as possible, we might get through these tough times of change. Together. Tolerably well, at any rate.  

Donna DuCarme


Donna DuCarme

"Creative Facilitator" Donna DuCarme splits her time between the Netherlands and Scotland, and loves them both for very different reasons. Her training is in theatre, her work is in various...

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