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Andris Feldmanis: In defense of tolerance

Andris Feldmanis.
Andris Feldmanis. Source: Virge Viertek

The democratic world is made strong by the fact it is not based rigidly on force and is therefore flexible. Why is flexibility important? Because Man is changeable, controversial and hypocritical, Andris Feldmanis writes in a comment originally published in Müürileht.

Self-reproach is both the greatest weakness and strength of the democratic and liberal world. Our sanctions are not effective enough, we have done wrong for decades by being too soft, tolerant and naive.

We should have armed ourselves better, sported more effective deterrence, been more critical and forceful. Such allegations are becoming louder with every day following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I believe it is the most misguided conclusion drawn in the fog of war.

Admitting hypocrisy

The democratic world is made strong by the fact it is not based rigidly on force and is therefore flexible. Why is flexibility important? Because Man is changeable, controversial and hypocritical.

The latter is what we seek to hide both in our public and private lives, while every person who is even minimally honest with themselves must admit to a measure of hypocrisy within. Their words and actions do not always match, they can be insincere at times. Admitting it is the self-reproach mentioned earlier, while it should not be understood in the sense of surrender (hypocrisy becoming one's modus operandi) but instead as a sign of humility, admission of one's human limits.

And in this admission of human limits do I perceive the core of democracy – we need other people and their opinions to see clearer and be better. Admitting hypocrisy makes it possible to straighten up and eventually be free of it.

Our democracy and free press in all of their endless manifestations are suffering from the same human shortcomings. We endlessly doubt the words and motives of politicians, looking for invisible threads leading to corridors of power full of gray cardinals wrapped in political intrigue.

Election campaigns, mudslinging, corruption, dubious foreign funding. This level of complexity and lack of clarity is exhausting, as is knowing that it is never-ending, that posters are always lies and the dance begins anew every four years.

We can be quite sure that our temporarily mobilized unity will fall apart again after the war (or sooner) into tens or hundreds of interests at odds with one another.

This makes us dream of something simpler. To wish that instead of all this being human in the Riigikogu (that becomes ridiculous as does every manifestation of human activity when studied closely enough) a "strong force" or an "enlightened monarch" would take the reins.

The greatest sacrifice on this altar of clarity would be flexibility (and through it freedom) as it would render authority rigid and therefore brittle. Such authority would have to be protected through force as it is incapable of fending for itself.

Tolerance and softness

What makes our society flexible is tolerance and softness that nevertheless do not equal timidity and submissiveness.

Paradoxically, minorities and liberals are often accused of practicing "militant tolerance." Yes, taking tolerance to some utopian extreme can be destructive, while tolerance is most often depicted as an absolute by its critics in attempts to ridicule it.

Every society is based on agreements and limits. Tolerance is not an attempt to make them disappear but simply to broaden them so that more people could feel good and be happy in society.

A society that never revisits or changes those limits is a prison. And yes, tolerance also includes a measure of hypocrisy because people do not think or act in terms of absolutes. A person is not an ideological machine so to speak, contrary to what some 20th century regimes and perhaps the modern identity-based worldview try to claim. Tolerance is an agreement and therefore imperfect.

Tolerance is first and foremost a principle not to condemn any social group or person. Despite attempts to drown tolerance in the swamp of political correctness, I am convinced that the word "tibla" (a derogatory term for a Russian derived from the Russian words ty blyat – ed.) falling into disgrace and disuse is not a sign of weakness but constitutes a step toward a more cohesive society.

It would be naive to the extreme to believe that there is a series of decisions somewhere in the past that would have perfectly prepared us for Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the propaganda war surrounding it or helped avoid its horrors.

The liberal West's relative tolerance and openness have helped create the current democratic front as they have rendered Russia and Putin's conduct wholly indefensible and given the democratic world moral superiority.

Yes, Russia has seen attempts at conciliation and concessions as signs of weakness, but does that mean we should do the same? Wouldn't that constitute an attempt to lay down precisely the kind of strength-based world order that Putin and his nuclear briefcase are seeking because that is the world where he has the chance to win, where the necessity to create the Russkiy Mir exists?

Of course, the conduct of European leaders can be criticized for naivety and mistakes in hindsight – doing so is our right and obligation in a democratic society.

The pull of strength

The strength of the democratic world lies in its ability to chance course, which Putin's regime lacks, as changing and going back on one's positions would amount to self-cancellation. It is a world of a single enforced narrative, while every story ends eventually, with the worst atrocities committed as part of attempts to keep it alive.

Democracy enables changing and competing narratives, and while it is terribly more confusing and self-critical (and therefore exhausting for the person), it is also infinitely more flexible and therefore stronger.

The worst thing we could do today would be to believe that we have been too tolerant, to boil everything down to strength and lines of force and to believe that absolutely correct decisions exist somewhere.

The international arms race picking up speed is inevitable at least temporarily, while it rather poses a threat to peace and security in the long term. The crisis at hand could be seen as proof of the opposite realization: that the constant moral panic over the deterioration and lack of principles of the "West" has been exaggerated.

Softness and tolerance do not require a lack of morals but entail democratic values we know to appreciate. That politicians have not lost all sense of reality and responsibility, that officials have helped build functional domestic and international systems. That we can value our freedom despite all of the hypocrisy or even because of it, realizing that it would be an obligation as opposed to a freedom under the iron fist of a warlike dictator.

We are stronger than we think because living in a democracy and maintaining it requires constant effort. This is where we should see ourselves as being strong and take pride in democracy.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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