These are some of the questions guiding the teaching and research of Dr Susi Gottlöber, a lecturer in philosophy at Maynooth University. "There is a difference between tolerating someone and their ideas, and embracing them," she says. "In viewing ‘the other’ as a human being, I think we need to move beyond tolerance to respect, and to respecting each other as equals. For example, as a woman I would find it offensive to be tolerated, I want to be respected as an equal. But we also need to consider peoples’ different perspectives, as our beliefs inform both our actions and who we are. In public debates we discuss whether tolerance should be unlimited. But we forget that we become tolerant or intolerant in the name of certain values.”
"In the name of what values do we become intolerant? For instance, one could argue that all opinions and religions are valid and should be tolerated in the name of freedom of expression for all. However, some of the more extreme interpretations of religion may threaten the rights of women or gay, lesbian, transexual, bisexual, or transgender people."
Reason and the better argument
Growing up in Communist East Germany, Gottlöber says that there was no freedom of thought or expression and that her work today is influenced by a desire for pluralism. "Even if I dislike certain opinions, shouldn't they be allowed a voice in the hope that reason and the better argument will win out? Then again, was it perhaps largely emotion, rather than reason, behind Britain's decision to withdraw from the EU, as well as the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. When people are guided by emotion, especially fear, reason doesn't always win out. And reason can be arrogant: the anti-Brexit side simply assumed they would win. We are often motivated by emotions and not the better argument."
These are topics she is keen to tease out through dialogue, and her research is helping to spark an international conversation about ideas of tolerance.
Limits of tolerance
"We want to trace the line from tolerance in the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period and through to today," she says. "In the 17th century, the philosopher John Locke published a famous letter which argued for inter-religious tolerance, stating that you can't force people to believe in a particular religion. He didn't, however, extend that to Catholics, who, he said had a loyalty to the Pope above the state, nor did he extend it to atheists who he saw as a danger to the state. By reflecting on tolerance people also have always reflected on the limits of tolerance."
Much of Gottlöber's work is guided by the ideas developed by Nicolas of Cusa, a cardinal, theologian and philosopher who, during the 15th century, explored inter-religious dialogue and tolerance. In 1453, he reflected on the fall of Constantinople and was shocked that, in the name of the God of Abraham, Muslims and Christians had committed such terrible atrocities.
“He wasn't a relativist - he didn’t say that all views are equally valid - because he believed that Christianity was closer to the truth, but he did feel that nobody can truly know God's mind, so instead of killing each other, we should be more tolerant and, in competing with each other in a peaceful way, best practice would emerge. While his book on Islam would be seen as intolerant today, his ideas were nonetheless radical in their time,” according to Gottlöber.
Cusa was one of the earlier philosophers to grapple with the questions of how we can live side-by-side in peace while holding different views when it comes to our most fundamental beliefs, but his thinking has never been more relevant, says Gottlöber. "How do I reconcile my beliefs with those I disagree with? Increasingly it is becoming clear that some kind of shared values is essential for tolerance, while at the same time tolerance is only necessary when there is some tension between different ideas and practices. Tolerance arises out of a tension between accepting and disagreeing with them. It was and is a means of providing peace and learning to live with each other. Nevertheless, the limits of toleration should always be reflected upon: it should be accepted that reflections on tolerance always go hand in hand with reflections on its limits."
Paying lipservice to tolerance?
Today, Gottlöber is concerned that we are only paying lip service to tolerance and the values it is based upon. "Very few people would say these days that they are intolerant, but, for example, when one encounters a religious conservative with right-leaning views do we not often see intolerance and disrespect? If we are to be truly tolerant and in favour of pluralism then we should be constantly inviting people into discussion with whom we disagree."
"For me personally, there is no question regarding the ban on same-sex marriage since this discriminates on the grounds of sexual orientation and therefore violates the value of equality. If I am to be truly tolerant, however, I should allow a fair platform to those who disagree with me, as, in the name of equality everybody has the same right of freedom of expression. But what are the limits? In the name of tolerance, should we give a platform to people who don't respect tolerance and human rights?”
Intolerance a reaction to ideas that threaten us
Intolerance is often our natural, emotional reflex reaction to ideas that threaten us, while toleration is a result of reflection, says Gottlöber. "I am guided by a belief in equality and justice. In a pluralist society we must allow space for dissenting voices, but if someone denies rights to women, black or gay, bisexual or transgender people, for instance, that is a violation of equality. If somebody argues for genital mutilation, they violate the right of security of person. So how much tolerance can we have and where are the limits?"
Ultimately, Gottlöber is engaged in this research because, she explains, she believes that a pluralist society is the best one for humanity to be happy. "My driving research question is: how can we lead a good, fulfilled human life? The philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt believed we flourish best when we are allowed to be ourselves, and to be different, but without harming others. We are the same, only in that we are all different, says Arendt. In the tensions between people and ideas, creativity - art, music, literature, science, language, culture - arises. Indeed, it seems that we need this creativity to lead fulfilled lives. And what connects creativity and tolerance? Humans need both to flourish."