After the Nineties of the 20th Century tolerance returned to the centre stage in political thought, returning to fashion a concept that has certainly been central within the framework of political thought in modern times, but that appeared to have become a closed book with the French Revolution that on its flags bore the words freedom, equality and fraternity, and not tolerance.
The liberal and then liberal-democratic constitutions that followed did not in fact acknowledge the concession of tolerance (which indicates an attitude of toleration with regards to those we do not recognise as being like ourselves and who we paternalistically accept to put up with, obviously without this implying the acknowledgement of any rights), but freedom – religious freedom and freedom of speech, the press and opinion etc. – as the public and subjective right of each individual.
The question of tolerance arose in the 16th and 17th centuries from the distinction between a States inner space and the exterior one inhabited by States and the need to have internal order to guarantee a civilised peace among citizens and to instate externally a regulated coexistence between states. The need was felt to distinguish between the objectives of states and those of religion, a distinction that through the acknowledgment of the pluralism of confessions, after neutralising their conflictual potential, would later determine the acknowledgment of civil and political rights for all individuals.
Voltaire was an emblematic figure in the modern battle for tolerance. On one hand we find in Voltaire’s words an affirmation of the subject of latitudinarism, which allowed him to prove that the only possible solution for wars and unrest resulting from intolerance consists in maintaining a broad pluralistic organisation of beliefs, since they are all based on one of nature’s common nuclei that render all human beings equal. On the other hand tolerance is theorised as the heart of a modern idea of politics, also based in the need to resolve relations between the State and the Church in the name of safeguarding social and political order.
Forgotten for almost two centuries by politics, the issue of tolerance has returned today with a variety of meanings: not only religious tolerance, but also racial, tolerance for lifestyles, and for all diversities. In the western debate the new theories on tolerance are proposed as an answer to juridical issues, due to the complexity and multiplicity characterising western societies, which far from being homogenous according to the ideology of nation-states, appear internally as increasingly diversified.
Within the contemporary debate on tolerance one can briefly distinguish between two positions: on one hand there are the liberal authors, such as John Rawls, who propose tolerance as a prudential system for increasing rights and who therefore consider it as a necessary strategy for the homogenization and unification of the political area surrounding what is acknowledged as the founding principle of modern democracies, the pluralism of values. There are authors on the other hand, in particular North American ones, who agree with the positions of the communitarians (Taylor, Kymlicka, Walzer), who see tolerance not as a process of neutralization within a procedural framework such as the liberal one, but as a necessary strategy for obtaining an active acknowledgment of diversity, hence of the presumed different identities that make up the multiple communities inhabiting the space of contemporary society. In this second case the debate on tolerance intermingles not only with the issue of justice but also with that of multiculturalism.
Finally, tolerance is nowadays declined, as in the centuries of full modernity, as the practice of the political organisation of space, which implies a spatial relationship between the players inhabiting it. The reappearance of the concept of tolerance within the political debate is the result of the emergence of new players on the political stage and this determines the need for a new and concrete redefinition of political spaces. This need is emphasised by all the current theorists of tolerance, who however, precisely because they propose the “virtues” of tolerance as a solution, can only continue to envisage this as arising from a action of exclusion (the “level of tolerance”) on which the process involving the acknowledgment of those who are within, compared to those outside society, is based, as well as those who are citizens compared to those who are not. Nowadays, the Rawls pluralist kind of tolerance, like that of Locke or the tolerance of multiculturalists, seems increasingly a practice of concession by the group that defines itself as “liberal and democratic society” or “plural society” with regards to those perceived as not being part of it.
But the task that political schools of thought and practices should address is to manage to abandon a relationship with the Other based on assimilation or exclusion; this is the new challenge that the current historical dimension poses. This means moving beyond tolerance, and finding the courage to really address the issue of the equality of rights and duties that materially connect us to one another.