Tom Sutcliffe: Tolerance doesn't mean removing the intolerable

Social Studies: The best defence against the offensive and wrong-headed may be restrained indifference

Share
Related Topics

On the face of it, Sion Owens and Kenza Drider wouldn't appear to have a lot in common. Mr Owens, in case you missed it, was the BNP candidate who decided to incinerate the Koran in a Quality Street tin, while Ms Drider is the French Muslim woman who promised to become the first to be arrested when France's new burka law came into effect. One deliberately set out to insult and enrage Muslims, the other – notionally at least – is taking action on their behalf. But they do share some things. Both of them now find themselves at odds with the authority of the state in which they live, both of them have had their unrepresentative views amplified beyond their wildest dreams, and both of them are testing the point at which private liberty comes into conflict with public good. Both of them also illuminate a fundamental error when it comes to thinking about the defence of a tolerant society.

We're yet to find out how serious the error will be. Though Sion Owens was arrested and charged with a public order offence over the weekend he learned yesterday that the CPS was withdrawing the case against him (though investigations will continue). And while Kenza Drider was detained yesterday, after wearing a burka in public, the French police insisted – surreally – that she'd been taken into custody not because she had deliberately broken the new law but because she hadn't applied for official permission to protest against it. It was almost as if someone somewhere had recognised that applying these laws might actually be counter-productive. Yes, both Mr Owens and Ms Drider are intransigent zealots. And yes, they both engage in activities which are offensive to many people. But is their offensiveness so great and so dangerous as to justify prohibition rather than scornful disregard?

To say yes, is to make the mistake of thinking that a tolerant society is best created by ensuring that no citizen ever encounters something they find intolerable. But if you believe that, tolerance effectively becomes redundant. And in any case it's quite difficult to know where to stop. Is it to be an offence against public order to burn any religious text – or just one whose followers may violently over-react? And if the latter is the case doesn't that implicitly concede the power of prohibition to violent over-reactors? By definition the tolerant lose out and the intolerant get what they want. Of course there has to be reciprocity. In yesterday's paper, my colleague Yasmin Alibhai-Brown asked this: "Will the Koran-burner be backed by libertarians, atheists and Muslim-bashers? Or will he face the same opprobrium as those Muslims who burnt Salman Rushdie's book?".

To which I would want to answer that you can be a libertarian without being a Muslim-basher and that you don't have to "back" someone to defend their right to be offensively wrong. As for The Satanic Verses – do with your copy what you will. I might find it distasteful but I'll get over it. It's only if you burn my copy, or exhort people to kill its author, that we might have a problem, and it's at that point only that the law should become involved. Similarly while I personally find burkas offensive – an insult to men and an oppression of women – there are real dangers in expecting the state to protect me from the civic duty of peaceably putting up with my neighbour's folly.

A free society, in short, isn't one in which only people we agree with are entitled to speak and argue. It's one which also protects the rights of the offensive and wrong-headed – and understands that the best defence against their folly may be restrained indifference. Ignoring Sion Owens and Kenza Drider would damage their respective causes far more than turning them into self-appointed martyrs for liberty of conscience.



Always spike a book with plant names



Steve Hely's very entertaining literary satire How I Became A Famous Novelist includes a scene in which the narrator trawls through the bestseller tables in a big American bookshop assembling a set of rules to guide the composition of his book.

These include: "Rule 1: Abandon truth" and "Rule 12: Give readers versions of themselves, infused with extra awesomeness". The rule I liked most though was his last one – "Rule 16: Include plant names" – because it rightly identified an implausible botanical exactitude as one of the affectations of the upmarket bestseller.

Then I opened up David Foster Wallace's new novel – The Pale King – and found a four-line list of plants in the very first sentence. Space precludes a full quotation but the list includes shattercane, nutgrass, jimsonweed, Creeping Charlie, muscadine, spine-cabbage and "invaginate volunteer beans", all of which are described as "gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother's soft hand on your cheek" ("Rule 7: Prose should be lyrical").

I assumed Wallace must have invented "shattercane" as a joke but it seems not, and "jimsonweed" and "Creeping Charlie" turn out to be real too. But the only results I can find for "spine-cabbage" in a Google search refer back to quotations from this passage in Wallace's novel. So, did he spike his own list with an invention as a kind of secret joke about the trope? Or was he absolutely in earnest all the way through? And if it's the latter how am I going to get my straight face back in place for the next 550 pages?



t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star