Agree to disagree and accepting this

How philosophical conversations bring acceptance


Tolerance versus acceptance


Within the concept of tolerance is already included that you reject someone. If we don’t have the chance to send them away or the possibility to ignore them, we tolerate. It is a mental struggle to keep on tolerating the things or people we find so repulsive. And a matter of time until we can’t handle it anymore. We all have boundaries. In tolerance there’s an expectation towards them to be better or more according to your preferences. If the other doesn’t meet your condition, he’s not accepted, only tolerated. So basically, tolerating means: we do not accept a person for who he or she is, and stay in conflict.


Tolerating means: we do not accept a person for who he or she is, and stay in conflict.

Acceptance is a kinder attitude, without such a negative undertone. If we agree with someone, there’s even no need for acceptance. Then we are already on the same team. Acceptance is possible when someone is from the other side: We accept someone with another point of view, we agree to disagree with that person and accept this. This results in regarding other people as equal despite all differences.


Accepting means: we agree to disagree and accept the person for who he is

The conditionality of tolerance has disappeared in the attitude of acceptance. By the mere insight of everyone’s equality, not only respect their life (as with the serial killer) but also with regards to their entire individuality.

Because this last option seems somewhat idealistic and unattainable, politicians (f.i. the ones who call Amsterdam a ‘Tolerant City’) tend to aim low: we expect people only to tolerate each other. I disagree here. We must aim higher, it’s the level of acceptance we want to achieve.

To make the jump from tolerance or ignoring or rejecting each other, all the way to acceptance, people would first have to get to know these differences, to understand them and eventually accept them. We never expect agreement! People have the right to their own opinion, religion, culture and lifestyle, so we will not expect surrender or assimilation.

Question is: how to reach it? How to make people accepting of each other, each other’s point of views and behavior resulting from them.


A philosophical dialogue (in classrooms) to reach acceptance


Acceptance can never be a top-down given command: ‘Thou shall accept’. Whenever this kind of rule is placed upon (young) people, they might know how to behave, but the behavior will not come from themselves as autonomous individuals. And those autonomous individuals are who we are trying to reach in this democratic society based on equality.


Already for many years, dialoguing seems the answer. Only by meeting someone who is different, getting to know a real person representing another group you’re not part of, creates the possibility of an insight: ‘They are also human beings, I am different but still accept him/her as a person.’

After many dialogue-tables in the city, we hope to have created meetings between former strangers and insights of acceptance. Especially the example of bringing a homosexual person into a classroom or a group of anti-gay people, accommodates the confrontation that is required.

A dialogue can be a real ‘meeting’ between different point of views, once it is guided philosophically.

But even without real life example, a dialogue is possible, about any given subject. A dialogue can be a real ‘meeting’ between different point of views, once it is guided philosophically. Instead of aiming for consensus and instead of mere expressing first impressions and unreflected opinions, in a philosophical conversation all participants are invited to reflect on their own perspective and think about the reasons they believe what they believe.

While they reflect on themselves, they do this in discussion with the opposite opinion. It is only possible to build a solid underpinning of arguments, when you know the possible counterarguments. That’s why it’s necessary for a participant to listen carefully to the representatives of another perspective.


In a philosophical conversation there is no one who has reached the truth. There’s no one who wins. Because in philosophy there are no facts for answers. We are just expressing and investigating our thoughts, opinions, beliefs and convictions, there are values to weigh and concepts to define.


What happens in a philosophical conversation can be modeled out in terms of a fragment of the early 19th century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He had an interesting take on the history of ideas. Looking at the development of ideas, ideologies and beliefs, he saw a pattern, in short: first there is the thesis, then the anti-thesis and then the synthesis.

For example:

Thesis: first people believed in God, i.e.: “God exists.”

Anti-thesis: “Prove it! God does not exist.”

Synthesis: “There’s those in favor and those against. But what exactly do you mean by the concept ‘God’. What would you define as God (chance, fate, the universe, creating power, love?) and does it matter if you call that God?”


What happens in the synthesis is not just the combination of the two. It is a deeper insight in which one stands above the two former perspectives and realizes they are contradictory but do try to describe the same reality. New questions are emerging, stepping over the initial question (‘Does God exist?’) to a deeper one, where the duality is synthesized (‘What is God, what is the nature of reality, does labeling make a difference?’).

One could compare the synthesis to the yin-yang symbol of eastern traditions: the black and the white are equally intertwined, the opposite and contrary forces are actually interconnected, interdependent and complementary. The view of the whole is key: in the phase of synthesis, we take a meta (beyond)-point of view, we see perspectives for what they are: perspectives.


For instance:

Thesis: ‘Homosexuals are haram/dirty/sinful/against human nature. I reject homosexuals.’

Anti-thesis: ‘Homosexuality is natural, and you should accept them!’

Synthesis: ‘There’s those in favor and those against. But what makes a person gay? What is natural? Can you choose who you love? Where do we find rules to know what’s right? How do you know this? If someone is sinful in your eyes, what’s the best way to react?’


Basically, the synthesis can be summarized in one follow-up question, in this case: what is homosexuality? Or: how do we know what is right?

This move deepens the yes-no discussion to where we can let go our convictions and just investigate reality. In this way we realize, and the children in the classroom do too, how we are all having our own perspectives. A perspective is not a bad thing. People, and young people as well, are entirely entitled to stay with their original opinion. The result of the philosophical conversation is a cognitive insight, namely: ‘we are all having perspectives.’

It follows naturally from the discussion itself. Because David realizes how Fatima disagrees, they accept the structure of opposites. The rules of the game are for David to defend his, but to do so he needs to reflect and investigate his position and at the same time listen to Fatima, to understand what she means. Only to respond to her with another well thought point or question, he needs to really understand her position, acknowledging the very point: there are multiple positions possible, not just your own. And the same goes for Fatima.

An open mind in practice

With an open mind, we, the teachers, principals, civil servants or mayors, should then accept people have all possible perspectives. Even the ones that are contradictory to yours. I can hear you thinking: ‘But there are certain opinions unacceptable, aren’t there? We cannot agree to disagree on everything! What about terrorism? What about homophobia? What about extreme political opinions?’

Of course, it is important to check if such an idealistic proposition is not naïve, and where we should draw the line of what is acceptable to think and say. But, while thinking about it, the line was already drawn, ages ago. The baseline of how to behave socially is protected by law, as well as school-rules. These norms clearly state that no one may use violence or constraint another’s human rights (law). And there’s no bullying (school rule). As long as they don’t break these rules, people may believe, plead and behave as they please.


If you’re aiming for the attitude of acceptance, you must try to accept people who are actually believing the exact opposites. Try to understand them, don’t reject the person. Agree to disagree.

And again, there is a boundary: no violence. So the America hater may hate all he want, but obviously terrorism is forbidden. Still he is entitled to his opinion. Also being in favor of torture or female circumcision, or let’s say slavery. Who are we to believe someone should not have this opinion? As long as someone does not break the actual law, all opinions are admissible. Asking a philosophical question is a way for that person to reflect on his position and for you a way to understand his thoughts.


Conclusion & recommendation


I would like to ask all of you: are you in daily life able to make the cognitive leap to understand there are different perspectives and stand above it? Or are you taking sides, judging someone, devaluing them, for their stupid other perspective?

Personally, I made it my life mission to be wise and understand everyone and be accepting, but I must admit, I do sometimes hit a wall. If people I know vote for horrible political parties or believe in farfetched paranoid theories, I am in shock. Within the Hegelian dynamics I am stuck in one of the extremes in the polarization and even if I try to make the jump into the synthesis, my emotional attachment makes it hard to stay up there. It might take a while for me to accept these things (like xenophobia or heavy irrationalism) exist in the world.

In some cases the friendship ends, but still: I do agree to disagree. I don’t wish them bad luck or hate them.


To make the youth familiar to the attitude of acceptance, I would recommend schools to commit to the practice of philosophical conversations, weekly, about any given topic.

Children become aware of the fact their own ‘truth’ is just one perspective, and understand that another person has another point of view. This very act and especially the further philosophical questioning enhances their critical thinking and leads to synthesis: the insight that we are all having different perspectives. Only when this is built into the structure of education, then we can expect children to rise to the level of acceptance, instead of basic tolerance.


To make the youth familiar to the attitude of acceptance, I would recommend schools to commit to the practice of philosophical conversations, weekly, about any given topic.

Children become aware of the fact their own ‘truth’ is just one perspective, and understand that another person has another point of view. This very act and especially the further philosophical questioning enhances their critical thinking and leads to synthesis: the insight that we are all having different perspectives. Only when this is built into the structure of education, then we can expect children to rise to the level of acceptance, instead of basic tolerance.



credits illustratie: Paulien Hilbrink


Dit artikel is geschreven door Sabine Wassenberg voor het project Amsterdam Contract of Tolerance in 2022.

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