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Tolerance crucial in a democracy
Author: Corporate Marketing / Korporatiewe Bemarking
Published: 23/06/2017

Should we tolerate everything people say or do? Does tolerance imply that we have to accept or tolerate things with which we disagree profoundly? Are there limits to the controversies that we are prepared to tolerate?

These were some of the questions Prof Nuraan Davids of the Department of Education Policy Studies at Stellenbosch University (SU) tried to answer on Thursday (22 May 2017). She was the speaker at the third Stellenbosch Forum lecture of 2017. The Stellenbosch Forum lecture series provides regular opportunities to staff and students at SU, as well as interested people from the public, to learn more about the relevant, world-class research that is being done at SU.

Davids spoke about the importance of having tolerance for divergent and controversial views in democratic societies. In this regard, the focused on hate speech as a form of controversy.

Using the recent Nazi-inspired posters on the SU campus as an example, she said "while we do not have to accept such ideas and ideologies or other forms of hate speech, we have to accede the right and the legitimacy of people to hold particular beliefs, to express them, and to defend them."

"People should be allowed to express and explain their views. People have the right to believe what they want but accepting this is up to us."

"Liberal democracies have to be prepared to tolerate views that are seemingly undermining of liberal values."

Davids added that when we silence people, we are in fact acting in an undemocratic way.

She argued that tolerance preserve and cultivate difference, disagreement, dissonance and controversy; and not the defense of harmful and alienating language and actions.

"Tolerance helps us to recognize that, perhaps, there are other considerations and other imperatives, which drive divergent thought."

Davids argued that instead of denying something like hate speech, we should counter it by resignifying or turning it around in a way that denounces violence against humanity without conceding that the hate speech be endorsed.

"This implies adopting a kind of tolerance in one's disagreement with another's claim. In other words, demonstrating a tolerance of disagreeable speech is simply a way of counteracting hate speech."

Tolerance does not mean people can't simply do what they want, Davids said.

  • Prof Davids' lecture was based on the book Tolerance and Dissent Within Education: On Cultivating Debate and Understanding (2017) that she co-authored with her colleague Prof Yusef Waghid.

Photo: Prof Nuraan Davids delivers the Stellenbosch Forum lecture.

Photographer: Justin Alberts