Updated: Dec 26, 2022
How philosophical conversations bring acceptance
Author Sabine Wassenberg
project Amsterdam Contract of Tolerance, 2022
Tolerance versus Acceptance
Inherent to the concept of tolerance is the potential of rejection. If we don’t have the chance to send someone away or the possibility of ignoring them, we tolerate. It is a mental struggle to keep on tolerating the things or people we find so repulsive. What's more, it is invariably only a matter of time until we can no longer handle the situation; we all have boundaries. In tolerance there’s an expectation towards the other party to be better or more according to your preferences. If the other doesn’t meet your conditions, they are 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 not even a need for acceptance; 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 acknowledgment of everyone’s equality, we not only respect their life (even that of a serial killer) but also their entire individuality. Because this last option seems somewhat idealistic and unattainable, politicians — especially 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. The level we want to achieve is that of acceptance.
In order to make the jump from tolerance or ignoring or rejecting each other, all the way to acceptance, people first have to get to know these differences, understand them, and eventually accept them. We never expect agreement! People have the right to their own opinion, religion, culture, and lifestyle, so we do not expect surrender or assimilation.
The question is: how to reach it? How to make people accepting of each other, each other’s point of views, and resultant behavior?
A Philosophical Dialogue (in Classrooms) to Reach Acceptance
Acceptance can never be a top-down instruction: ‘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, dialogue seems to be the answer. Only by meeting someone who is different, and getting to know a real person representing another group you’re not part of, creates the possibility of an insight. That is, ‘They are also human beings, I am different but still accept them as a person.’
People have organised many dialogue-tables in the city, and have brought a homosexual person into a classroom or a group of anti-gay people. These activities accommodate the confrontation that is required and we hope these meetings between former strangers have created insights of acceptance.
A dialogue can be a real ‘meeting’ between different point of views, once it is guided philosophically.
But even without real life examples, 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 merely 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. Simply, there are values to weigh and concepts to define.
What happens in a philosophical conversation can be modeled out in terms of an idea coming from the early-nineteenth century philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He had an interesting take on the history of ideas. In short, he saw a pattern in the development of ideas, ideologies, and beliefs. First there is the thesis, then the anti-thesis, and finally the synthesis.
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 the position that God exists. But what exactly do you mean by the concept, ‘God?’ What would you define as God — for example, is it chance, fate, the universe, creating power, or 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 that although contradictory, they try to describe the same reality. Synthesis prompts new questions to emerge, stepping over the initial question (‘Does God exist?’) to deeper ones, where the duality is synthesized: ‘What is God, what is the nature of reality, and 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.
Thesis: ‘Homosexuals are haram/dirty/sinful/against human nature. I reject homosexuals.’
Anti-thesis: ‘Homosexuality is natural, and you should accept them!’
Synthesis: ‘There are 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 is a dissolvement of the former contradiction by asking follow-up questions, 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 of our convictions and just investigate reality. In this way we realize, and the children in the classroom do too, how we all have our own perspective. 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.’ This follows naturally from the discussion itself. Because David realizes that Fatima disagrees, they accept the structure of opposites. The rules of the game are for David to defend his stance, but to do so he needs to reflect on and investigate his position and at the same time listen to Fatima, and understand what she means. In order to respond to her with another considered point or question, he needs to really understand her position, and acknowledge that there are multiple possible positions, not just his 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 accept that people have all possible perspectives. Even those that are contradictory to our own. I can hear you thinking: ‘But certain opinions are unacceptable, aren’t they? 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. 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 or encourage violence or constrain another’s human rights: this is law. On top of that, school rules dictate no bullying. As long as people don’t break these rules, they 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 opposite. 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 they want, but obviously terrorism is forbidden. Still they are entitled to their 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 their position and for you a way to understand their thoughts.
Conclusion and 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, or otherwise devaluing them for their stupid alternative perspective?
Personally, I made it my life’s mission to be wise, 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 and paranoid theories, I feel shocked. Within the Hegelian dynamics, I am stuck in one of the extremes of polarization, and even if I try to make the jump into synthesis, my emotional attachment makes it hard to stay up there. It might take a while for me to accept that things like xenophobia or deep irrationalism exist in the world. In some cases friendships end, but I nevertheless agree to disagree. I don’t wish the other party bad luck or hate them.
To make the youth familiar with the attitude of acceptance, I recommend schools commit to the practice of philosophical conversations, ideally weekly, and about any given topic. Thephilosophical questioning enhances their critical thinking and leads to synthesis. Pupils become aware of the fact that their own ‘truth’ is just one perspective and understand that another person has another point of view. Only when this is built into the structure of education can we 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
credits illustratie: Paulien Hilbrink