The tolerance of intolerance: Homophobia and religious freedom

by Foteini Tsigoni, member of the Social Issues Research Team

On the 9th of November 2020, the Dutch Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, Arie Slob, supported a surprising disapproval of homosexual lifestyle in Dutch Christian schools. More specifically, the Minister implicitly defended that Christian charter schools are allowed to express themselves negatively about homosexuality (Meijer, 2020). Slob defended the right of some of these schools to ask for signed approval by parents to reject homosexuality and homosexual lifestyle (DutchNews). In contrast, the Netherlands are known to be one of the most open-minded countries as it repeatedly advocated self-expression in a variety of ways. The Dutch government already decriminalised homosexuality in 1811, the world’s first gay rights organisations were founded in Amsterdam in 1946 and the Amsterdam Gay Pride in 2008 was proclaimed one of the best gay prides in Europe (Iamsterdam).

The tension in the Dutch Constitution

The issue directed attention to the Dutch constitutional article which underlies this paradoxical situation. In article 1 of its chapter on Fundamental Rights, the Dutch Constitution states that “All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted”. Many Dutch journalists pointed out that Minister Slob apparently “forgot” about this constitutional article. In the same chapter, the Constitution also contains article 23, which has often proved to stand in stark opposition to article 1. It states: 

“1. Education shall be the constant concern of the Government. 

2. All persons shall be free to provide education, without prejudice to the authorities’ right of supervision and, with regard to forms of education designated by law, their right to examine the competence and moral integrity of teachers, to be regulated by Act of Parliament. 

3. Education provided by public authorities shall be regulated by Act of Parliament, paying due respect to everyone’s religion or belief”

The third paragraph specifically has pushed the Parliament in many discussions of over acceptance of beliefs and religions in schools. Slob clearly prefers article 23, but of course legally there is no hierarchical order between articles in the Dutch Constitution. Minister Slob has been heavily criticized for his defence of the homophobic policy of some of these Christian schools. ‘Roze in Blauw’, a national police network that stands up for members of the  LGBTQ+ community, is following up to his statement with an official report against the minister (ANP 2020). 

The main goal of article 1 is for people to have the right to be free of discrimination, while the purpose of article 23 is to provide a freedom of education without discrimination of religious beliefs. Two different types of tolerance are therefore manifested in articles 1 and 23, but combined they can create great tension. Article 23 implies tolerance to every kind of societal belief that the school desires to follow, but at the same time demonstrates intolerance over their students, for instance when it concerns homosexuality.

The tension between liberal democracy and religious conservatism       

This ideological view from the Dutch government sparked many debates and discussions in the Dutch media. Most of them were focused on the division of government and religion and the tensions between the values of liberal democracy versus those of religious conservatism. On such a general level, the Dutch case is only one example of this universal phenomenon. An extreme example of religious intolerance and its pressure on the values of liberal democracy are of course witnessed in the terrorist attacks in France with the brutal murder of the French teacher who showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in class (BBC News). In Greece, there was the case of the 2015 law, allowing homosexual partners to have a cohabitation agreement that was condemned by the Orthodox church. Amvrosios, a Greek hierarch and former metropolitan in the Church of Greece in the Holy Diocese of Kalavrita and Aigialeia, expressed his discontent about the law in unequivocal terms, stating that according to the Church being homosexual “is to be humiliating. We should spit on them! Disapprove of them! Blacken them! They are not people! They are abortions of nature! They are suffering mentally and spiritually! They are people with mental disorder! These are three times worst and even more dangerous than those who are in the insane asylums!” (Μανδραβέλης, 2015).

The Tolerance Paradox

What the Dutch Minister Slob, the Greek Hierarch and, to some extent, even the terrorists in France have in common is that their actions and convictions usher us to think critically about the limits of religious intolerant convictions. This topic has already been discussed by many philosophers and thinkers through the centuries and even the founding fathers of philosophy; Plato and Socrates discuss this issue in their debate in the ‘Republic’. During the Enlightenment period, John Locke took his own stand on being tolerant on his ‘Epistola de tolerantia’. Locke accepted other religions, but still believed that Catholics were not to be trusted as they were ruled by a foreign sovereign power, the Pope. Furthermore, he believed that the agnostics did not have a philosophy that they could follow, thus they were not to be trusted. Locke’s Epistola was one of the first official attempts at philosophising tolerance and its necessity in modern western society, but it was definitely not tolerant enough for everyone.

The paradox of freedom and the paradox of democracy, both introduced by Socrates, were ultimately developed into the famous paradox of tolerance that was formulated by the philosopher Karl Popper in the 1960s. In Chapter 7 of his book ‘Open society and its enemies’, we see his criticism on the paradoxes of freedom, democracy and on his own addition, the paradox of tolerance. Popper claimed that “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance, even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed and tolerance with them” (Popper, 1963). Popper, in other words, explains that to have an accepting society, the society itself has to disapprove the non-accepting, non-tolerating ideologies. This is the part that makes this argument, or philosophical thought, a paradox.

Let us first consider some broader issues following from Popper’s paradox. We can for instance explore whether for seemingly tolerant societies there is a line between being tolerable and being submissive to ideas? In other words, is the society considering which ideas are tolerable and which to blindly accept and be submissive to them? Is there a thought process of deciding which ideas are tolerable? What follows from this is that a tolerant society has a philosophical legitimation to not wanting to be tolerant of every behaviour, especially malicious behaviour, such as murder or theft. Society needs to be tolerant of different behaviours, but only after it is established that this tolerance does not harm anyone. This is the harm principle that was introduced by John Stuart Mill; “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”, definition taken by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This kind of liberalism is to promote individual liberty so tolerance is something to be desired.

With the harm principle, society can be tolerant of different behaviours, unless they oppose a threat to a person. Considering the harm principle in this argument, we could continue it further by asking if society should accept behaviour of people that harms those people themselves? For example, should we allow people to take hard and dangerous drugs, if their actions do not harm anyone else? Should we tolerate self-destructive behaviour? In this case, the paradox of tolerance does not offer us a straightforward answer, but the harm principle might be of guidance if we stretch its definition to self-harm. Still, society should clearly not accept passing the boundary of unnecessarily interfering in people’s lives by forcing compliance. This could include forcing them to quit smoking or drinking alcohol. A government that is intolerant to self-destructive behaviour can of course easily become overly controlling and totalitarian.

Conclusion

This tolerance paradox gives us difficult concepts to grasp. If toleration did not exist, people could be deprived of any freedom and being completely controlled. If there was too much tolerance, intolerant minorities -like religious conservative groups- could start affecting the freedoms of the majority. If we keep tolerance within the harm principle, this would allow the toleration of self-destruction. If we stretch the harm principle to protect self-harm, this can spiral out of control to create a ‘nanny’ state which effectively is an intolerant society.

Minister Slob, through his freedom of expression within a tolerant and democratic society, can discuss the desires of Christian charter schools. At the same time, if his ideas harm others, in this case the students that are forced into a ‘straight lifestyle’, must be opposed. After the aforementioned incident in November 2020, he was heavily criticized by the whole Parliament and immediately withdrew his comments, but his initial stance should not be taken lightly. Equally, the harmful actions of terrorists who presume that cartoons are harmful and the Church goers who think that being gay is shameful, worst and dangerous of people in mental asylums. Popper understood that tolerance is important for the balance of a society to function and it is still a topic that every society is struggling with, even in the open-minded Netherlands.

With the present analysis we have looked into the examples of intolerance against homosexuality in different extents and into the theoretical scene that explores this concept of tolerance in modern society. This is a theme that I would like to investigate further, as these topics of tension recur again and again in a variety of contexts. Each time the equilibrium is not established; there is a lack of tolerance and a lack of intolerance as well. Looking at societal issues through the lens of the paradox of tolerance can help us to better understand the moral and philosophical structures behind such issues.

References: 

  1. Meijer, R. (2020). “Vrijwel eensgezing werd Slob teruggefloten: ‘Dit gaat niet over de vrijheid van onderwijs’”, De Volkskrant, Accessed: 17.11.20, Available here
  2. “Minister faces prosecution probe after defending anti-gay school charters”, DutchNews, 2020. Accessed: 17.11.20, Available here
  3. “LGBT history”, Iamsterdam, Accessed: 16.11.20, Available here
  4. The constitution of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. (2008). Available here
  5. ANP (2020). “Roze in Blauw: aangifte doen tegen minister Slob mogelijk”, Het Parool,  Accessed: 16.11.20, Available here
  6. “France teacher attack: students ‘paid 300 euros’ to identify Samuel party”. BBC News, 2020, Accessed: 01.12.20, Available here
  7. Μανδραβέλης, Π. (2015). “Σύμφωνο συμβίωσης με την εκκλησία”. Η Καθημερινή, Accessed: 01.12.20, Available here
  8. Popper, K. R. (1963). Open Society and its enemies. 4th edition. Princeton: Princeton university press. 120-137.
  9. “Freedom of Speech”, Stanford encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2008,. Stanford: Stanford University

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