Are We More or Less Tolerant?

01/08/2012 15:11 BST | Updated 30/09/2012 10:12 BST

Is intolerance on the up? Pessimists would say yes. At home, John Terry is prosecuted for racial abuse on the football pitch and the court acquits him. Irish Travellers are identified with slave owners. The immigration authorities are criticised for failing to keep out so-called "threatening" or "free-loading and job-snatching" foreigners - while at the same time for keeping queues waiting to be checked at airports. Overseas, radical Islamism is on the march and so are right-wing parties in Europe. The breakdown of the Soviet Union 23 years ago has not fulfilled the hopes of Western liberals; nor has the Arab Spring. Right wing fundamentalism is pushing aside more conventional conservatism in the USA. The world is polarising, Western liberal values are on the defensive, and the global economic crisis is engulfing us.

The fact is, these are all emotive issues, which require a scholarly understanding.

This year the Frederick Bonnart-Braunthal Trust, which combats intolerance by funding scholarly research that is likely to lead to practical measures against it, celebrated its tenth anniversary. It marked the occasion with a conference at LSE that was preceded by an address by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and ended with a speech by Trevor Phillips, outgoing Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Chaired by Conor Gearty, Professor of Human Rights Law at LSE, the conference explored the nature of intolerance and the role of tolerance in a just and fair society. Is tolerance simply a sensible rule of the road in a world where there are many conflicting beliefs? Does it imply moral relativism - or condescension? Or is it a strong ideal, rooted in the equal value of each human being and in their rights? The sense of the conference was strongly towards the latter, whether approached from His Holiness the Dalai Lama's spiritual starting point or from the Western liberal stance of several other speakers. Tough questions, however, follow of how conflicting rights and freedoms are to be reconciled and defended and of the role of human rights law in this process (it can be a blunt instrument, as the Terry case shows). His Holiness himself stressed the need for a strategy for action.

Four Bonnart scholars at UCL and LSE presented their work, including an analysis of the nature of torture, and studies of the precarious status of the Urdu speaking minority in refugee camps in and around Bangladesh, management of the Palestinian cultural heritage, and the motivation of border vigilantes in the southern USA. It was clear from all that understanding of human behaviour - in diverse contexts - is an essential precondition of the practical action at which the Bonnart Trust aims; and that moral judgment, however justifiable, must not stand in the way of the human empathy that is needed for this understanding.

So are the pessimists right? Trevor Phillips gave a cautiously positive account of progress in equality and race relations in the UK.

Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of our Nature, made a persuasive case that in the long run of history and despite terrible aberrations human beings have become less violent, as they have gained in understanding of each other and in self-control and as historical forces including commerce, the state monopoly of the use of force, literacy and the expanding circle of human sympathy have reinforced cooperation. It is likely that for similar reasons we are becoming more tolerant. But there is nothing inevitable about this. It depends on human effort. Pinker said of violence: "The shift is not towards complacency: we enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to reduce it, and so we should work to reduce the violence that remains in our own time". For violence, read intolerance; for peace, read tolerance. Hence the work of the Trust and its scholars.