The limits of tolerance

Accept or tolerate?The Dutch like to think of themselves as an exceptionally, even uniquely, tolerant people. The precedent is often cited as Amsterdam’s reception of refugees fleeing religious persecution in the 17th century, although London too hosted Huguenots and Jews, in perhaps greater numbers than Amsterdam. And to the outsider today, the Netherlands is not obviously more tolerant than other northern European countries such as Denmark or Sweden; yet to a Dutch person, whenever conversation turns to identity and what it means to be Dutch, it is the notion of special tolerance of others that comes to the fore, and discussions about immigration, for example, often provoke an indignant response and a feeling of a personal affront.

Maybe a failure of the “MultiKulti” society (Angela Merkel) is also due in part to merely tolerating others rather than accepting them:

If you accept others as equals, you embrace them unconditionally, now and forever. But if you let them know that you tolerate them, you suggest in the same breath that they are actually an inconvenience, like a nagging pain or an unpleasant odour you are willing to disregard.
Source: Arthur Japin

The devotion of the Dutch to an ideal of tolerance sometimes produces tortuous compromises and inconsistencies. Take, for example, the famous tolerance policy on soft drugs: According to the government website, “Weed, marijuana and hash are less harmful than hard drugs (XTC, Cocaine), but they are just as illegal.” In practice, possession of less than five grams of cannabis for personal use will not be prosecuted. You can also grow up to five cannabis plants without prosecution … although “they have to be handed over upon discovery” (?!).

Coffeeshops find themselves in the middle of this bizarre form of tolerance: they are authorized to sell small quantities of weed under very strict conditions, including an interdiction to buy weed. That would encourage trade in drugs rather than personal consumption, goes the reasoning. The result is that the supplies come from illegal cannabis plantations run by criminals with no regard to quality or safety. Just today, the Utrecht city council proposed setting up legal plantations, formed of members each with five plants, in order to reduce health risks and cut out the criminal middleman.

Elsewhere in politics, we currently have a coalition government propped up by a “tolerance” of a third party, Geert Wilders’ PVV. His party (of which he is the only member …) is so repulsive to other members of the rightist coalition that they cannot accept him as a member of the government, but will only tolerate his presence provided he backs them on key issues.

Being "tolerated" sucksThe influence of tolerance stretches down to local community relations too. For example, in our communal garden, a number of house owners have placed plant pots on the paving stones around the garden, effectively extending their garden into the common ground by an extra one or two metres. The reason is that these house owners had understood that the original building plans gave them much longer gardens; when the final product was delivered, with much less land, the owners decided unilaterally to take back their land. As latecomers to the block, we were unaware of the history, but the result was clear: big concrete plant pots in the middle of the path, with plants stretching over the rest of the path, meant that it was almost impossible to walk round the garden without getting smacked in the mouth by bamboo or dune grass. After years of wrangling, the residents’ association produced a tolerance policy whereby owners were allowed to cover one of the three tiles, but that their plants could not extend any further than that single tile. So far nothing has changed; we’ll have to wait until the weather gets warmer before people start using the garden again, and the plants start growing.

And now the final example of the limits of Dutch tolerance, and the story that first motivated me to write this post six months ago: in the regional newspaper on 3 September 2010, I noticed a short article on the front page about three members of a cycling club who had been reprimanded by the club executive because they had stopped for a coffee during a bike ride. The rest of the club members had no problem with it, but the board insisted on the club principle of “Out together, home together”, and the rule that members are not allowed to stop during a club ride. The story continued on the inside pages, with a photo of dissident member, Adri de Schipper stirring a cup of coffee, in his cycle kit, with his bike parked behind him. The practice of stopping for coffee had always been tolerated, he explained, and it was now a pity that the club executive had suddenly changed its mind, threatening to kick the dissident coffee drinkers out of the club if they didn’t conform to the club rules.

As Japin says, “Tolerance is cloaked menace: the mood can change at any moment.”

Thanks a lot, Voltaire

News just in: seven out of ten Dutch people have participated in a poll about Geert Wilders.

Whatever issue Wilders addresses becomes the discussion of the day, and in such a way that Wilders himself becomes the issue once again. I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but I read somewhere that someone’s brother-in-law overheard a source close to a rumour … that Wilders was a Mossad agent, codenamed Mephistopheles.

Watching Wilders today contemplating the debate on dual passports that he had initiated, I found myself straining to tweak Evelyn Hall‘s famous defence of free speech, usually misattributed to Voltaire:

I do not agree with what you have to say,
but you’ll deaden the deaf with your right to say it.

On a more sombre note, another quote that is attributed to Voltaire strikes a sensitive point in recent political events in the Netherlands:

The ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.

However, I’ve only found the quote in English, without reference to an original source, and without a trace of an original version in French.