On Limits of Tolerance

Eberhard Renner, MD
Internal Medicine Department Head

Our “postmodern” thinking rests on the notion that everything happening in the world is perceived through the subjective lens of innumerable observers. This means that reality is a collection of myriads of interpretations of an event, neither one of which is per se more correct than another. It is not possible to recognize a single objective truth, i.e. a reality outside a subject’s perception (including that specific to each single one of us). How we perceive and react to what comes our way is influenced by factors that are not integral to what we react to. These include, but are not limited to, the perceiving subject’s personal history, experience and socialization. When we look at a painting, listen to music or read a book, when we interact with others, we are always part of that activity, of that reality; we can never take a standpoint outside of it from where alone an unbiased view and objective judgement would become possible.

While nowadays termed “postmodern”, the above may not be entirely new. Plato’s cave allegory already contains similar thinking, and Kant wrote “… we indeed, rightly consider objects of sense as mere appearances, confess thereby that they are based upon a thing in itself, though we know not this thing as it is in itself, but only know its appearances”.

Be it as it may, the postmodern position has been instrumental in reinforcing tolerance, and with tolerance decency in our dealings with each other, irrespective of diverging individual viewpoints. Thus, postmodern thinking serves as basis of accepting the co-existence of dissenting values and opinions in our multicultural society.

That all said, tolerance is fundamentally different from the loosey-goosey attitude of “anything goes” into which postmodern thinking can be at risk of degenerating. The premise that everything is subjective does not mean that all perceptions and opinions have necessarily the same likelihood of being (morally) justifiable. Tolerance does not negate that there are limits. In fact, tolerance requires that there are limits. If nothing else, tolerance itself must be respected, not only as an abstract construct when it is profitable, but as a lived reality also when it may be unpleasant or even risky. Tolerance – and political correctness for that matter – is not a one way street, but must equally apply to all involved. It cannot go on that one party claims to own tolerance, to know what is politically correct. It cannot go on that one party applies its own perception to everybody else, thereby corrupting tolerance to become nothing else than yet another instrument of power and subduction.

So far so good, you may say, but what has that to do with our Department? Well, I think a lot. Do we not want to be treated in a decent way by our co-workers and do our co-workers not want to be treated decently by us? Expectations of being treated in a decent manner always go both ways, from us to our co-workers and from our co-workers to us. Substitute coworker with other interacting partners in an academic health care team such as patients, families and health care providers, learners and teachers, nursing and physician staff, administrators and front line personnel; all can expect to be treated in a decent manner, and all need to accept that they may have differing viewpoints, and must exercise tolerance to diverging opinions. That tolerance always goes both ways has been aptly recognized 250 years ago by Kant with the imperative “treat others how you wish to be treated”. That reciprocity is the line beyond which tolerance ends. Beyond that line tolerance and political correctness pervert themselves into their contrary and civility claims risk degenerating into a scapegoat for suppressing dissenting viewpoints. We have probably all seen this,  let’s avoid falling into that trap.