November 03, 2017

In an age of tolerance, why is there so much hostility?

We like to think we live in an enlightened age, where each of us has the freedom to form our own opinions. Why then, instead of existing peacefully alongside one another, do we vehemently condemn any who dare to hold a different opinion as wrong? On any number of issues we so often feel that we alone have all the right answers. But is there anything wrong with that?

Brexit, Trump, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the NFL debacle: each of these produce very different gut reactions in us and we each consider our opinion on the matter to be absolutely right. The only problem is what to do about all the people who are wrong.

We like to think we live in the age of tolerance and certainly the ability to hold our own opinions is held up as one of our highest ideals, an essential pillar of freedom and human rights. ‘No one can tell us we’re wrong’, we say. In that case, the evidence pointing to our increasingly polarised views and the vociferousness with which we now express them should pose no problem. And yet, instead of existing peacefully alongside one another with our widely divergent but comfortably-held sentiments, we vehemently condemn any who dare to hold a different opinion. Those who disagree with us are branded as bigots and cast headlong out of polite society. You only have to look at any online comment section to see the worst of humanity poured out in bitter scorn and derision against the expressed or assumed opinion of others. Why then do we hold freedom of expression as such a vital entitlement for ourselves, but beat it down when voiced by others? Because we care more about our own opinion than we do about the freedom of others to hold theirs. In fact, we have become almost maniacal in our pursuit of proving to have a monopoly on being right.

Our toddler, for example, may mistakenly think Brexit is what she eats in the morning, but she epitomises the British public in the daily tension that she displays between wanting to have it right now and wanting to play with her toys for a bit longer. We each have our own view of whether and how Brexit should progress, but none of us can know for sure whether what is ‘best’ for Britain will ultimately mean Deal or No Deal, Soft or Hard, Norwegian or Canadian, or any of the many nuances to the way forward. And yet, even in today’s more enlightened age, we so often feel that on this, or on any number of other issues, we alone have all the right answers. We also remain staunchly convinced of our ‘rightness’ no matter what anyone else says about it. Despite understanding the snares of fake news, we prefer to dwell inside carefully constructed pillow forts which comfortably cushion our own worldview. Our ‘post-truth’, ‘post-fact’ era is now defined as one where ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ [1].

As the protests in Charlottesville and Catalonia demonstrated, a ferociously dogmatic adherence to a particular view can ultimately lead to violence. Most of us think we’re above this kind of behaviour; we are mere keyboard warriors. But don’t all of our comments and snarky tweets reveal a deep problem in our hearts? Not just the hatred that we have for those who hold a different opinion, but the stench of unbridled pride. Why is that a problem, you may ask? One answer could be that it isn’t actually good for us. It’s a form of self-indoctrination, a chosen blinkeredness against discovering the truth. But it’s actually more than that. It’s also a shaking of our fist at the universe and ultimately against God.

There was a man in ancient times, called Job, who stood in this same position: convinced that he was right, yet acutely unhappy and railing against God, who had a different perspective on the matter. God finally answered:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much … Have you ever commanded the morning to appear and caused the dawn to rise in the east?

Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers? [2]

Job then replied:

I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers? I will cover my mouth with my hand. I have said too much already. I have nothing more to say. 

I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you. You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about, things far too wonderful for me. [3]

This is not an appeal for us lowly humans to shut up and sit down; God is deeply interested in our opinion, but he wants us to hold it in balance. We are not the king of the universe, he alone has that title. We simply cannot claim to always know what’s right, or what’s best for us and for everyone around us. Job’s subsequent humility was well rewarded, not by obtaining a validation of his own views, but by receiving a peace of mind, a freedom and a contentment which inevitably follows letting someone you trust take the reins.

Similarly, when we stand back and take the long view, looking down the centuries at how small we are in comparison to the greatness of the universe, how can we possibly think we know it all? Will we continue to stubbornly assert our views, or will we choose to accept that there are some things too vast for us to know? Can I suggest that a more humble and open-minded position would be to put our trust in someone who knows far more than we do and who wants our very best? Perhaps like Job, at the very least, we can accept we don’t know it all, stop talking and start listening.

[1] Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’, 2016
[2] Job 38:4, 12; 40:2 (New Living Translation)
[3] Job 40:4-5; 42:2-3 (New Living Translation)

Jocelyn Hutton

Jocelyn Hutton
Jocelyn is a British-American lawyer and mum, who grew up in Nepal and is now a Londoner by choice.

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