THE quintessential aspect of democracy, and indeed that of a good community, where each one of us can build flourishing lives for ourselves, is tolerance.
If there is any discipline of life where opinions differ sharply, it is politics, perhaps only equaled by religion. The fact that the diversity of interests, desires and opinions in politics is so great is exactly why tolerance matters. It is understandable that we differ so much as people that we often come to a point where we do not understand why others should think and behave the way they do.
In Zimbabwe we have had political players associated with certain ideologies, and others styling themselves as patriots, democrats, liberals and so on and so forth. We have this divide that says the ruling party stands for revolutionary patriotism, while the opposition is seen as pliant liberalists driven by Western aligned economic policies, and that assertion is not without cause.
While patriotism and nationalism are ideologically popular and perhaps borrowed liberalist policies are seen as frowned upon by many, not least for their poodle outlook, we must always acknowledge that those that believe in borrowed policies have a right to their choice of thought and opinion, just like those of us who see themselves as patriots cherish the same right for themselves.
The very possibility of democracy turns on tolerance. Society by definition involves people getting along peacefully and cooperatively most of the time, if not all the time. All this cannot be possible unless we begin to recognise the entitlement of others to their choices accordingly.
I am a writer who is somewhat strongly opinionated, and given that my domain is political commentary, I have had first hand experience with intolerance, especially given where I write my work from, and also my background as a Zimbabwean, a country seen in the West as divided between pro-democracy angels and tyrannical followers of the ruling party. I happen to be viewed as a sympathiser, if not an agent of the ruling ZANU-PF, or of President Robert Mugabe, as the Canberra Times once put it. My left wing politics and the support I have for pro-people policies across the world do not help make the position change.
I have been persecuted, vilified, plotted against at high level places of authority, falsely accused, and the sad thing is that this experience has been in the heartland of a renowned democracy, the perceived hub of tolerance. To some I have represented that familiar rub – the paradox of tolerance, where some have seen me as a risk to this perceived tolerant society. Advertisement
They generally would be of the view that I fail the test for tolerance, because I write unpalatable stuff for their liking.
When I write against imperialism my views have been seen as radicalised, if not intolerant of other people’s political ways.
When I have written in defence of Zimbabwe’s land redistribution program my views have been seen as uncompassionate, as intolerant to the interests of the ousted white commercial farmers.
Sometimes my work has been derided as intolerant propaganda intended to further the interests of the ruling ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe. You reside in Sydney Australia and you are seen as stabbing the heart of your host for daring to challenge the foreign policy of Australia in regards to Zimbabwe, a country that happens to be your own motherland.
Once you are seen as intolerant, rightly or wrongly, you then face the deemed remedy for the paradox of tolerance – that tolerance must not tolerate intolerance if it is to protect itself.
Our own state apparatus in Zimbabwe has sometimes used the same remedy, and there are always people seen as undeserving to the tolerance expected of a state to its citizens. At times the people at the receiving end of this intolerance are petty political activists carrying out frivolous noise making gimmicks in city parks, or simply passing reckless opinions in public drinking places. Nathaniel Manheru once questioned this unwarranted overzealousness by some in our security power corridors, and advised that some things deserve no more than a good laugh, and they will go away. Nobodies have many times been given undue national attention simply because there are people in the national security apparatus who are driven by volcanic intolerance.
But security by its very nature of necessity means there are things that cannot be tolerated, things that at law are deemed unacceptable. From a security point of view tolerance is not this warm, wooly, feel good attitude of smiling at everything that goes around. Tolerance is a principle based on the philosophy that everyone must respect everyone else’s rights and principles, for as long as the behaviour does not threaten the security and rights of all others.
Our media leads ahead of its readers in the crusade of intolerance, and one just needs to read the Zimbabwean papers to get the point. Our papers run on editorial policies where rights and entitlements of one side of the political divide are totally disregarded and disrespected, simply because their views and interests are deemed intolerable. The deprived rights and entitlements include the right of reply before a story is published. Almost every editor in Zimbabwe is a convict on this one at the moment.
Tolerance, pluralism, and individual liberties are principles so central to the running of a good society, and also pillars to the principle of democracy.
We live in a country where intolerance reigns supreme from our political parties right into Parliament and other state institutions, not to mention the disastrous filter-down effect to the generality of the populace.
We have seen our media celebrating egregious acts of intolerance, or at the best turning a blind eye to the menace. This was quite evident at the height of infighting within the MDC, and it continues to be the trend as the opposition continues on its splitting path. Both ZANU-PF and the MDC are well known for their ruthless summary disciplinarian measures, including instant lengthy suspensions and summary expulsions. We are not even going to write about the intra-party violence that often receives partial coverage from our media, depending on who has been beaten up, and who has done the barbaric deed.
While tolerance is not a demand to license just anything whatever, least of all behavior that threatens the existence of organisations, it must also be noted that there have been clear cases of unwarranted heavy handedness within our political parties, only traceable to mere intolerance.
Free speech and tolerance are fundamentals in an open society in which individual rights are respected and protected. It is hard to imagine any right that can be effective without free speech; for when one is silenced they cannot lay claim to any of their rights, or even seek remedy for the abuse of any such rights.
Of course a society in which free speech is essential is a society that must by necessity be tolerant. Where free speech is not tempered with, frequently someone will be offended by someone else’s utterances, this being an inevitable concomitant of free speech itself. I am not surprised at all when I read angry outburst against some of the things that I write. I write freely, and my views are bound to offend one or two people whose own views would equally offend me if those people were to express them to me.
There must be agreement in principle and in practice among members of the same society that they are all prepared to tolerate sentiments, opinions, attitudes, affiliations and views that are different from their own. It does not matter that these views may differ radically or offensively. For social cohesion to be possible such views must be tolerated.
Zimbabweans on social media specialise in insulting each other when it comes to political debate. The level of intolerance mirrors the political environment on the ground at home. The Herald editor Caesar Zvayi often posts provocative but incisive political topics for debate on his Facebook page.
Instead of the perceived high intellectualism of Zimbabweans being evident in the debates, one is confronted with the most primitive of abusive language, as protagonists trade the most tasteless of insults. Zvayi is often the target of these graceless lowbrow attacks, and the man must be applauded for his tolerance.
It is very important to know that tolerance is hard work. It entails people putting up with what others do, even when those actions of others look strange, stupid or simply unfavourable. It involves recognising the right of other to be different, and allowing them a chance to openly express their views, for as long as they are not harming others.
It really does not matter I may seem odd, offensive, obnoxious, or disagreeable, tolerance entails the ability to put up with all that, on the part of those offended, as it equally applies on my part.
Of course we as people can argue, try to persuade each other, mock each other, satirise each other, criticise each other, and so on and so forth, expressing our own freedom of speech that way, but we cannot forbid or prevent other people from expressing their views.
Freedom of speech is not in itself absolute, and tolerance does not mean limitless acceptance of anything that goes. When Boko Haram declares its intolerant views on the Nigerian society, it does not make sense for anyone to accord them the right to free speech. When al-Shabab declared its murderous intentions to “turn Kenya red with blood,” such views cannot be acceptable to any society, and those expressing them must be stopped in the severest of ways possible.
Radical views associated with terrorism today are sometimes nurtured in communities practicing the principles of tolerance, raising the question of how big the margin of tolerance should be stretched. You come to this situation where in the name of defending the right of people to their views and opinions, society inadvertently allows unsavory opinions to flourish, and to attract followers, endangering the same tolerant society in the process.
We hear a Nairobi Law School graduate just saw it feet to spray hundreds of bullets at defenseless students at another Kenyan university, and it is reported the psychopath had been freely allowed to develop his radical views within the Kenyan community.
The risk that tolerance can breed monsters is a real one, whether we are talking of common political thuggery or the more egregious scourge of terrorism. Perhaps this is the price that tolerance itself exacts, and that we must pay.
Africa we are one and together w e will overcome. It is homeland or death!
REASON WAFAWAROVA is a political writer based in SYDNEY, Australia