An Interlude on Tolerance
Tolerance, not force, is the most effective way to lead
Comments on a Passage in Panorthosia
Although world government is the obvious solution to environmental concerns, many reject the idea out of hand. Why? Essentially because of issues of trust. What could we do if a world government becomes a global tyranny? Or if it declines into a faceless, impenetrable bureaucracy? Even in the Seventeenth Century Comenius recognized the force of this objection, and addressed it by emphasizing that the keynote to power has to be tolerance. No matter how perfect the system may be technically, if it is run by bigots, warmongers or unfeeling functionaries, it will be tyrannical or violent or heartless. In an early passage in Panorthosia, Comenius wrote,
"Something should also be said about the tolerance which ought to be extended by those in positions of power both towards one another and to their subjects." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 8, para 27, p. 120)
Comenius upholds tolerance as a positive virtue. Today, it is politically correct to make a nod at the need for tolerance, but we look at the problem mostly in a negative way. We condemn blatant intolerance, especially when it is violent. But we despair of ever rooting out jingoism, bigotry, prejudice and fundamentalism and stamping them out in all their manifestations. We point fingers all around, but accusations only distract from the self-critical stance that would improve the situation overall. Like creatures trapped in a sealed bottle, the more we flail about, the quicker we use up the oxygen that keeps us alive.
Instead, let us concentrate our minds on tolerant attitudes. Let us teach tolerance in schools, and accept only tolerant discourse in the media. Let us expect tolerant speech from leaders of thought, especially in faith groups. And, needless to say, let us choose tolerant leaders when we vote. We should expect more of such assessment in a tolerant society rather than less, for the same reasons we would expect that the designers of a high tolerance machine would make more minute measurements, rather than fewer, as they build it.
Furthermore, Comenius understood that there is an opposition between tolerant power and power based upon force. In the same passage, he continues,
"The situation calls for lenient, not violent action, on both sides, since it is clear that a noble spirit has been granted to the whole of human nature, preferring to be guided rather than dragged along or compelled. Anyone choosing to use compulsion only embitters, poisons and alienates men, and either makes them hypocrites or prepares the way for a fresh and perhaps greater breakaway."
A lack of lenity in wielding power explains why revolutions, in spite of noble and inspiring ideals, tend to nullify the good they aim to establish. By forcing change, they provoke resentment, reaction and violence. As Comenius says, any proposal for change has to appeal to our complete human nature, or the entire atmosphere will be poisoned. Tolerance and openness invite consent; they bolster the will and purify our common ground.
Nobody wants to be compelled to obey; to be jammed into somebody else's idea of what is right. This was portrayed in classical thought by the proverbial bed of Procrustes, an early serial killer who, the myth says, chopped off the legs of guests too tall to fit into his iron bed; when they were too short to fit, he stretched them on the rack. Tolerance describes the virtue of a good host, who seeks a larger or smaller to accommodate the needs of every guest. Without tolerance, there is no happy guest-host relationship, nor can leaders and followers get along without dissent.
Politically, tolerance is summed up in the supreme law of service, "Salus populi suprema lex." (Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.) Ethically, tolerance is the desire of a friend to seek good for one's friend, even against his or her own interest. In a word, love. For Comenius, love among friends has to be the prime motivation in power relations -- not compulsion or fear. Otherwise relationships are illusory and fleeting.
"Fear is a poor guarantee of lasting friendship. As Terence says in one of his comedies - `He who does his duty under the lash of punishment has no dread except in the thought of detection: if he thinks he will not be found out, back he goes to his natural bent. When you link a son to you by kindness, there is sincerity in all his acts, he sets himself to make a return, and will be the same behind your back as to your face'. Therefore anyone who thinks that men should be treated with violence and not kindness has no idea of how to govern human nature."
Love unites all with all, permanently. Fear? It can only unite against a single, immediate, naked threat. It is, in the words of the Tablet of Ahmad, uniting to assist one another, rather than true unity. As soon as the threat disappears, the fearful go right back to where they were in the beginning. This eradicates the only real ground between us, trust. There must be trust among friends. There must be trust for love to last. Otherwise, fear, like a fire, destroys the garden of goodwill between leader and follower. Baha'u'llah holds trust, and lack of fear, to be the basis of faith in God when He declares, "If thy faith be fearful, seize thou My Tablet, and preserve it in the bosom of trust." (Baha'u'llah, Epistle, 103) In the image of the Qur'an, if you place your hand in your bosom and it comes out white, then your truth is pure, your trust justified by divine confirmation.
As Comenius implies, arbitrary power is incompetent power. We all know how important tolerance and trust are, but we do not act upon this knowledge. Comenius continues,
"We can put our trust in those who have been won over willingly, but never in those who have been compelled by force or attracted under false pretences, which is the way to multiply our disagreements instead of removing them. For as Claudian observes 'Peaceful exercise of power succeeds where violence fails'."
Claudian hits the nail on the head here. There is a huge difference between compulsion and the peaceful use of power. This is what the people in the Middle East have learned as they peacefully demonstrate the power of the people. This can overturn tyrants who, until recently, had learned to suppress the slightest hint of opposition. They should be putting Claudian's statement on their placards:
"Peaceful exercise of power succeeds where violence fails."
The only reason that violence and oppression dominate is that most do not really believe that this is true. We vaguely agree, but in practice we accept that force always wins out. Tyrants rise to the top because in practice, compulsion works. The same is true in the family. Spouses use force because they believe that they really can dominate their spouses. Similarly, parents use violence to oppress their innocent children. Torturers inflict pain to extract information out of the mouths of prisoners.
In the media, torturers openly defend their cruelty to victims by referring to precedent. "Torture has been used from day one for good reason; it works, plain and simple. Otherwise, it would not have been used." On a certain level, this is true. For victors, there are undeniably benefits from the use of force and violence. Force and fear of force does bring compliance, but it is temporary. In the same way, slavery was ubiquitous for thousands of years. A people with a stronger army can conquer an entire people and force them to work as slaves.
But again, as Comenius points out, as soon as the threat dissipates, so does the power of compulsion. The real ground of enduring power, friendship, dissipates and crumbles before our feet. And, most important of all, the breach of faith poisons us because it cuts off friendship with God, Who created us all as equals. His faith keeps us alive spiritually, in the same way that oxygen keeps our bodies going. A tyrant, torturer or slave owner may temporarily benefit from oppression, like a drowning mouse frantically flailing about as it drowns. But faith and trust are capable of building an entire world, one where the threat of violence is a thing forgotten.