Mar 21 2011

Tolerance by E.M. Forster

Surely the only sound foundation for a civilization is a sound state of mind. Architects, contractors, international commissioners, marketing boards, broadcasting corporations will never, by themselves, build a new world. They must be inspired by the proper spirit in the people for whom they are working.

What, though, is the proper spirit? There must be a sound state of mind before diplomacy or economics or trade conferences can function. But what state of mind is sound? Here we may be different. Most people, when asked what spiritual quality is needed to rebuild another civilization, will reply “Love”. People must love one another, they say, nations must do likewise, and then the series of cataclysms which is threatening to desroy us will be checked.

Respectfully but firmly, I disagree. Love is a great force in private life; it is indeed the greatest of all things. But love in public affairs does not work. It has been tried again and again: by the Christian civilizations of the middle Ages, and also by the French Revolution, a secular movement which reasserted the Brotherhood of Man. And it has always failed. The idea that nations should love one another or that a person in Portugal should love and unknown person in Peru —it is absurd, unreal, and dangerous. It leads us into perilous and vague sentimentalism. “Love is what is needed,” we chant, and then sit back and the world goes on as before. The fact is we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much. In public affairs, in the rebuilding of civilization, something much less dramatic and emotional is needed, namely, tolerance. Tolerance is a very dull virtue. It is boring. Unlike love, it has always had bad press. It is negative. It means merely putting up with people, being able to stand things. No one has ever written an ode to tolerance, or raised a statue to her. Yet this is the quality which will most be needed after the war. This is the state of mind we are looking for. This is the only force which will enable different races and classes and interests to settle down together to the work of reconstruction.

The world is full of people—appallingly full; it has never been so full before, and they are all tumbling over each other. Most of these people one doesn’t know and some of them one doesn’t like; doesn’t like the color of their skins, say, or the shape of their noses, or the way they blow them or don’t blow them, or the way they talk, or their fondness of jazz or their dislike of jazz, and so on. Well, what is one to do? There are two solutions. One is the Nazi solution. If you don’t like them, kill them, banish them, segregate them, and strut up an down proclaiming that you are the salt of the earth. The other way is less thrilling, but is on the whole the way of the democracies, and I prefer it. If you don’t like people, put up with them as well as you can. Don’t try to love them. You can’t, and you’ll only strain yourself. But try to tolerate them. On the basis of that tolerance a civilized future may be built. Certainly I see no other foundation for the postwar world.

For what it will most need is the negative virtues: not being huffy, touchy, irritable, revengeful. I have lost all faith in positive militant ideals; they can so seldom be carried out without thousands of human beings getting maimed or imprisoned. Phrases like “I will purge this nation,” “I will clean up this city,” terrify and disgust me. They might not have mattered when the world was emptier; they are horrifying now, when one nation is mixed up with another, when one city cannot be organically separated from its neighbors.

I don’t regard tolerance as a great eternally established divine principle, though I might perhaps quote “In My Father’s House there are many mansions” in support of such a view. It’s just a makeshift, suitable for an overcrowded and overheated planet. It carries on when love gives out, and love generally give out as soon as we move away from our home and our friends, and stand among strangers in the queue for potatoes. Tolerance is wanted in the queue; otherwise we think, “Why will people be so slow?” It is wanted in the tube, or “Why will people be so fat?” It’s wanted at the telephone, or “Why will people be so deaf?” or conversely, “Why do they mumble?” It is wanted in the street, in the office, at the factory, and it is wanted above all between classes, races, religions, and nations. It’s dull. And yet it entails imagination. For you have all the time to be putting yourself in someone else’s place. Which is a desirable spiritual exercise.


 
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