The pannelists at a table in front of a presentation for "Tolerance Means Dialogue"
Image credit: Mariela Neagu

Tolerance Means Dialogues panel held at Exeter College

On the 22nd November Exeter College hosted a panel run by Tolerance Means Dialogues following their essay competition on the prompt: “At a time of great division, many see friction and no solutions. We draw on insights from many individuals about their experiences and other constructive ways to live together with our differences. How can intersectional thinking improve our laws?”

Undergraduates and postgraduates were invited to submit essays answering the prompt, with the winners being awarded a $750 scholarship and the ability to participate in the dialogue. The panel was moderated by Christos Kypraios from the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, who was joined by Professor Robin Fretwell-Wilson and Professor Jonathen Herring along with the winners of the competition, Cameron Samuel Keys, Hertford College, and Almas Shaikh, Lady Margaret Hall. 

The discussion centred around  how intersectional thought could be used to improve laws. The panellists discussed the value of being able to categorise the ways people faced oppression as well as the importance of understanding that assuming that all people of similar characteristics are affected in the same way will lead to ineffective laws. A $250 prize was awarded for one member of the audience who asked a question. 

Tolerance Means Dialogues is an organisation, based in the USA, led by Professor Wilson, which runs competitions to facilitate discussions about tolerance in universities in America and Europe. The undergraduate and postgraduate winning essays are published below.

Cameron Samuel Keys’s essay: 

My grandmother left Sri Lanka in 1965 to start her life in England. 51 years later I was shocked to discover that she had voted to leave the European Union, primarily because she viewed levels of migration as too high. I was even more shocked to discover that in 2017, she, a lifelong Labour voter, voted for the Tories, because she feared a Corbyn government. It took me a long time to comprehend her decisions. Simply put, I viewed her as an immigrant and a person of colour and didn’t understand why her politics didn’t match. I tell this story to illustrate how the modern view of intersectionality places individuals in boxes built around their personal characteristics rather than considering how different parts of their identity impact their unique experience of the world. The modern view has departed significantly from the ideas set out by Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks. I will conclude that while intersectionality can improve our law by providing an alternative to ‘a single story’, this is contingent on a return to a traditional conception of the term. 

In her 1989 article, Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to explain why feminism was failing to address the concerns of black women. In short, the inability to consider the cumulative impacts of sex and race, which she argues are greater than the sum of their parts, meant that feminism in its current form would continue to largely address the needs of white middle-class women. hooks developed this theory, notably stating that “I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance.” This statement encapsulates what was meant by intersectionality, that every person is impacted by the nuances of their life, and a failure to understand means a failure to create impactful change.

The modern view of intersectionality focuses far more on a person’s identity. This can be seen in the coverage of Suella Braverman’s firing as Home Secretary. In the BBC’s summary of her political career, they make consistent reference to the fact she is the daughter of migrants, contrasting this with her political stance on the level of migration to the UK.  Similarly, in the 2020 US presidential campaign Joe Biden said “’If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black’. This inability to reconcile identity with politics is a failure of the modern view of intersectionality and suggests a departure from a Crenshaw/hooks view of the term. Instead of viewing groups as whole people, it appears we are viewed as simply an extension of identifiable markers: being a daughter of migrants or a person of colour. 

Fundamentally the value of intersectional thought is that it forces us to view individuals as complex, conflicted and often confusing people whose views do not necessarily line up with our view of their ‘identities’. Tolerance, if nothing else, must mean tolerance of others who do not act or think or see the world in the way we expect them to. Unless the law recognises what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the ‘danger of a single story’, intersectional thought will not be able to improve our laws, instead further sowing the division and friction it aims to undo. 

Almas Shaikh’s essay:

Tolerance is often relegated to the backseat in a legal context. The word conjures images of begrudgingly enduring oppositional values, instead of wholehearted acceptance of different strands of thought. As a lawyer and a law student who is constantly grappling with concepts of equality and dignity on a regular basis, tolerance has been low on my radar of legal and personal values. Why do I need to rely on tolerance, when principles of equality, dignity and other rights would serve a better purpose? However, through the years, I have realised that a naive dependence on only legal concepts such as equality, liberty or dignity has severely limited application without a bona fide application of tolerance. I, therefore, argue that tolerance carries immense value in the form of fraternity, solidarity and dialogue.

Dr Ambedkar, a legal philosopher and key draftsman of India’s Constitution evaluated the value of fraternity: “Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them.” Nevertheless, there cannot be a complete realisation of fraternity without tolerance. Fraternity is a way to relate and bring together plurality of opinions. Without a tolerant approach, fraternity’s goal of pluralism would break down. Tolerance is, thus, a subterranean value that upholds fraternity.

Similarly, fraternity cannot be practiced in vacuum. It goes hand-in-hand with solidarity – whether it is jurisprudential, institutional and community-based. Solidarity is an important legal principle which recognises the social value of sharing human experiences. Within the European Union, Prof. Guido Alpa argues that solidarity is a normative principle, endowed with philosophical and moral significance, which can be used to realise socio-economic rights. Solidarity is buttressed with tolerance – an understanding that despite the myriad encounters among different groups and individuals, our humanity is a bigger shared goal that needs to be upheld and respected.

Using fraternity and solidarity together ensures open dialogue. United Nations has recognised that promoting fraternity and solidarity is bolstered through dialogue. This provides an antidote to hate and divisive rhetoric; to censorship and violations of free speech and expression. We need tolerance in receiving and reciprocating different, often opposing, ideas. It provides the space to exchange viewpoints, in the belief that they will be received in good faith.

Most confrontations could be solved outside the courtroom using tolerance – with a healthy dose of solidarity, fraternity and dialogue. Solidarity, fraternity and dialogue are important tools within law, morality and philosophy – however, none of these values will be half as strong without the underpinning of tolerance holding up these values.

Recognising tolerance as a legal value is also imperative to maintain the strength of tolerance.

It is not a mere idealistic vision, or an altruistic choice. It can be used to bridge relations, strengthen legal values and build a cohesive society. For me, tolerance means the ability to realise solidarity, fraternity and dialogue – the cornerstones of any democratic and liberal society.