This article is the second of a three part series that will explore the relationship between tolerance and charity, and how each plays a role in achieving peace
President Obama’s remarks to the United Nations general assembly a week ago centered around the violence that erupted in response to “The Innocence of Muslims,” an anti-Muslim film of rather mysterious origin. What we have got to learn from the video and the violent response it engendered, according to Obama, is not that we should ban intolerant media, but that “the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.” The solution is not to silence hateful speech by force, but to speak out against it. No doubt this is right; but how then should we speak in the name of what is right?
Our first inclination is to be the voice of peace and reason, denouncing both the violence of the response in the Middle East, and the intolerance of the video itself. But the ground on which we stand when we do this is shaky, to say the least. We need only ask ourselves whether violence and intolerance are always wrong to see why. Arguably, violence against injustice is sometimes necessary—see World War II—and last month I claimed that refusing to tolerate intolerance is an obvious contradiction, one that undermines peace.
So, our voices need to be different from the voices against which we speak.. Even if we are right, claiming that we are—more loudly than the others—isn’t enough. All that does is say: “I am right, and so you must be silent.” This does not lay the groundwork for peaceful coexistence, but irrational exclusion.
How, then, can our speech be different? It can’t just be more speech; we must make it more than just speech. We must appeal to an authority that transcends both ourselves and those against whom we speak, and can furnish a stable common ground. To condemn injustice, it is necessary to call something greater into play than righteous indignation.
This something greater is the Truth. In the face of the Truth, the importance of who is “right” or“wrong” fails. To speak with the force of Truth is more than to claim to be right. But how? How can we speak with the power of Truth?
An unpleasant answer: We must first be silent and listen. The babble of opposing voices, tolerance and intolerance, deafen us to the Truth’s stifled cry. It is not only the villains of Wrong who trample the truth underfoot; it is also the armies of Right.
A moment of silent listening is the beginning of charity. It demonstrates a desire to achieve something greater than oneself, greater than any self, whether that self be right or wrong. It shows that one is not simply speaking out against his enemy, but seeking a real unity with her, in something greater than both.
Before we speak, each of us must try in the silence of our hearts to see whether our positions, and the motivations that guide them, are true. Certainly there are times when we must respond immediately and decisively. But when it is truly necessary, we will only be able to do so if we have prepared ourselves with the humble strength of the Truth.
Compulsive speech, no matter how altruistic its motive, is bound to end in perversity. Psychologically, complete openness and responsiveness, no matter how selfless, weakens personality: you begin to lose a sense of yourself, to lose sight of your reasons for doing things, to act haphazardly and unreflectively, and do so selfishly. Openness to the other requires spiritual energy which does not originate in simply responding to the other. Responding immediately exhausts us, so that in the end it is we alone who are speaking. Then, our words are no better than the other’s.
Mere tolerance cannot respond fruitfully to injustice: the proliferation of speech will only deafen us. At the same time, not to respond is not an option. The only way to respond fruitfully is with the force of the Truth. And the only way to hear the Truth is to account for oneself, to make sense of one’s own point of view, to learn what it is that one believes and why, and to speak with the authority that this examined belief affords. Only thus, and not through tolerance, can we prepare ourselves to genuinely listen to the response of the other. And if we find that this Truth gives more authority to the other position than to ours, we will be able to change our tune. What we have heard from them will ring true, will resonate as part of this Truthwhich we have trained ourselves to recognize.
Later in his speech, the President said, “The question is, then, how do we respond?” How do we respond to injustice, intolerance, the indelicate, violent or ignorant abuse of freedom? The answer is not to sound the war cry of tolerance and shout over bigotry and blasphemy. It is to sound the trumpet of charity, to let love speak for itself by listening to love and learning how to speak it, a love which is possible only if we step back and learn the truth of the matter from the Truth itself.
Next Issue: The Trumpet of Charity