‘Written by Rosalie Harrison – Psychotherapist

What is tolerance? It is the prerogative of humanity.  We are all full of weakness and errors; let us mutually pardon each other our follies – it is the first law of nature[RH1] [RH2] .’[1]

The International Day of Tolerance is a UN initiative to foster mutual understanding among cultures and peoples. For its fiftieth anniversary on 16th November 1995, UNESCO’s Member States adopted a declaration of Principles on Tolerance, ‘recognizing the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others.  Peoples are diverse; only tolerance can ensure the survival of mixed communities in every region of the globe.’[2]

It is rather depressing to note tolerance was the focus for the UN fifty years after the end of the second world war and its own inception, and is marked this year a bare week after the 102nd anniversary of the armistice which ended the first world war.  One might question whether any initiative on tolerance would be successful since the global impact of two world wars and 76 million deaths clearly hadn’t been sufficient. If we hadn’t managed to become a more tolerant world a hundred years after the Somme and fifty years after the Holocaust, what chance would some declarations have in the era of Britney Spears, Beanie Babies and Tamagotchi? I prefer to understand the declarations as a timely reminder; a refusal by the UN to give up on us. Come on, they seemed to be saying, this still matters – tolerance is difficult, but don’t give up!

During the global pandemic, we have an all too immediate opportunity to examine where we are with our own tolerance. In one of US president-elect Joe Biden’s initial speeches, he found it necessary to say, ‘wearing a mask is not a political statement but it is a good way to start pulling our country together.’[3] It seemed that after the initial response of community efforts to reach out and support one another – and a new emergent sense of neighbour and community – the news suddenly seemed to be full of people demonstrating for the right not to wear a mask – soon synonymous with the right to free speech and in some cases, to bear arms. There were wide ranging conspiracy theories with a paranoid and persecutory flavour, while scientists and ministers we had perhaps initially found rather reassuring were spotted breaking their own rules. Survival anxiety threatened to push us into ever more polarised positions which is the breeding ground of intolerance, where anxiety provoking uncertainty is ditched in preference for certainty, and scapegoats sought to bear the anxiety we want to avoid.  There is a shift from curiosity, exploration and attempts to understand towards an urgent need to find our tribe and ideally, have our narrative reflected back to us.

Perhaps we felt hugely intolerant of people who ‘broke the rules’ when we had adhered to them, often at great personal cost. When the pages were full of Margaret Ferrier, the Scottish MP who sat on a train from London to Glasgow having tested positive for Covid 19, the media and public focus was on the degree to which she should be punished, with this to be decided though minute examinations and comparison of other public figures who had similarly strayed, including Jeremy Corbyn, Dominic Cummings, Stanley Johnson, Professor Neil Ferguson, Dr Catherine Calderwood, Robert Jenrick and Stephen Kinnock, MP.4  No one seemed very interested in asking her to share her thinking which informed her decision. Personally, I really wanted to ask them all how they arrived at their decisions to visit a second home, spend the night with a lover, attend a dinner party or indeed, conduct a birthday sight test en route to Barnard Castle. I would like to understand – I guess in the belief that with understanding I might feel more tolerant and less, frankly, violent.

[1] French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), writing in The Treatise on Tolerance on the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas from the Judgement Rendered in Toulouse, published 1763

[1] https://www.un.org/en/observances/tolerance-day

[1] https://www.thejournal.ie/biden-coronavirus-task-force-5260845-Nov2020 09/11/2020 · A mask is not a political statement but it is a good way to start pulling the country together,” Biden said in Wilmington after holding a virtual briefing with his Covid-19 advisory council.

I am working from a position of curiosity, and undoubtedly from my experience as a psychotherapist. I understand that the decisions we make day to day are driven by many competing and conflicting motivations, some of which we are aware of and some which are rather more shaddowy.  This makes us fascinating – and rather less rational than Descartes, Leibnitz and Spinoza imagined us to be. My own view is that we are reasonable, and if we are willing to examine our thinking, ideally with someone curious and willing to examine their own position, our motivations can become more apparent to us and more available to change.

Intolerance can feel like a welcome respite from uncertainty and during a global pandemic, where many of our familiar landmarks disappeared overnight and we were separated from our attachments, it is not surprising if we found ourselves taking refuge in the well trodden tropes of public shaming people we believed ought to behave better. To resist this would be asking a lot. We would have to tolerate our own anxiety, to forego the reassurance offered by those initial briefings from No. 10 – we would have to move to a more shadowy place of inquiry and what Keats called, ‘negative capability’ – the position of not knowing.[4]

The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at Kings College, London has a similar curiosity.  Some recent research into ‘Factors associated with adherence to self-isolation and lockdown measures in the UK: a cross-sectional survey’[5] discovered that while largely people wished to adhere to lockdown measures, and indeed, anticipated that they would, in the event 80% of those who participated in the study who had symptoms did not self-isolate. The research included a useful discussion of factors contributing to greater adherence and found sources of external support to be crucial. The position of curiosity inherent in the researcher produced, in this case, some very useful suggestions about how to improve adherence – and support was the key.

I think there cannot be many of us who have not had to examine our position on tolerance in recent months. No sooner had we had navigated the tsunami of information during the relative quiet of lockdown regarding mask wearing and hand washing; spikes, curves and waves; 5G, vaccines and bats; home schooling, furlough and shielding, and reached a position we could tolerate on our own vulnerability, we found ourselves unleashed into the world once more.  Here we discovered people who had taken a different position, a position which posed an immediate threat to our security  and rather like Brexit, these were people who were rather like ourselves, except for some inexplicable reason, they emerged from lockdown with a completely different assessment of risk.

[1]English poet, John Keats (1795-1821), used the phrase ‘negative capability ‘in a letter to his brothers, following his disagreement with Coleridge over Coleridge’s quest for definitive answers.  Negative capability is understood as the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery and make peace with ambiguity.

[1] Smith, L. et al (2020) Factors associated with adherence to self-isolation and lockdown measures in the UK: a cross-sectional survey. Public Health DOI: 10.1016/j.puhe.2020.07.024

In my own life, as well as in my practice, I have had countless opportunities to examine and re-examine my understanding and to summon up a stance of negative capability. Personally, I like ambivalence. I am, by nature, curious and I enjoy encountering difference and finding some shared understanding in surprising places. But this was difficult. This time, difference felt threatening. And that was hard to tolerate. I found refuge in my psychotherapy training and specifically in Freud[6], who offered me a route towards the understanding I needed in order to continue to be curious and tolerate my anxiety. Freud’s idea is that we can only know what we can bear to know. We can only tolerate knowing what we can live with. If something is too painful or too threatening to us, our mind protects us from it in a variety of fascinating ways.  He called these Abwehrmechanismen– defence mechanisms. The bigger the pain, the bigger the defence required to hide it from us – and anger is a powerful defence. In the process of psychotherapy, we come with a willingness to know what our defences keep from us, in the belief that with the close attention and presence of our therapist and their willingness to know and bear the pain with us, we will, in time, need our defences less and be able to bear our pain. I found this helpful in understanding the myriad of different responses to the pandemic I encountered. I was able to understand the wish to celebrate VE day with neighbours, to celebrate the end of the school year, to visit holiday homes and crowded beaches, to demonstrate your right not to  wear a mask and even to ‘tombstone’ yourself off cliffs and require the services of paramedics, felt as urgent to some as travelling to see sick or elderly relatives, attending a funeral or going to work did to others.  It all depended on the degree of existential threat you were able to tolerate. And when we remember many people live with that threat on a daily basis, it is easier to understand and indeed tolerate these decisions.

We also saw global demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd – with the All Lives Matter movement chasing the heels of Black Lives Matter – as though to demonstrate that by challenging the persecutions experienced by one group, other groups necessarily experienced themselves as marginalized or excluded. The war raged on the pages of social media, in families and communities – where did you stand? Could you be white and not inherently racist? Who blacked out their profile page? What did it mean if you didn’t?

I am fortunate that my work with couples and groups offers me many opportunities to witness how seemingly intransient experiences can be worked with and understood  – in groups the process is through monologue, then dialogue and finally discourse where the group works together to hold the polarity – and no one is annihilated, the anger is redundant and the group is maintained. Often when I meet a couple for the first time, both partners tell me they want their partner to listen and to understand. It is not unusual to find there is a belief that listening and understanding are synonymous with agreeing, and an early part of the work can be exploding that myth. The knowledge that two or more people can share the same space and be having a completely different experience is useful in this respect, as is finding that our need to be agreed with wanes rapidly when we feel truly understood. When couples take polarised positions, each working diligently to persuade the other of the validity of their view, I ask them to swap chairs and work equally diligently from the other position. I sometimes wish I could do this on Question Time or Newsnight – or, in a moment of mischief, the US election debates…

The image I chose for this article is of the Bridge of Tolerance in Dubai, ‘a clear span suspension bridge…playfully navigating two landing points, the curvature of the of the path is supported by cables that are justified to one edge. Evoking a sense of weightlessness, the pedestrian path delicately floats above the water and organically curls inward on either end.’[7] A federation of states not known for its tolerance, I wondered briefly whether the location reflected a moment of mischief for the UN. It is undoubtedly a powerful symbol, encapsulating some of the themes I have discussed for International Day of Tolerance – clarity, asymmetry, playfulness, support and organic in nature. Tolerance can sound like a burden – for those who tolerate and for those who are tolerated – neither is an enviable position. Tolerance, as I have understood it through global events of 2020 and my work with couples and groups – is a process and if it is a burden , it is one to share from at least two positions of curiosity and negative capability –  in couples, groups, neighbourhoods, communities and countries and federations. The tolerance of a bridge, in engineering terms, is its range of limits, its flexibility, the degrees of stress it can bear. Again, these are things better borne together.


[1] French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), writing in The Treatise on Tolerance on the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas from the Judgement Rendered in Toulouse, published 1763

[2] https://www.un.org/en/observances/tolerance-day

[3] https://www.thejournal.ie/biden-coronavirus-task-force-5260845-Nov2020 09/11/2020 · A mask is not a political statement but it is a good way to start pulling the country together,” Biden said in Wilmington after holding a virtual briefing with his Covid-19 advisory council.

[4]English poet, John Keats (1795-1821), used the phrase ‘negative capability ‘in a letter to his brothers, following his disagreement with Coleridge over Coleridge’s quest for definitive answers.  Negative capability is understood as the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery and make peace with ambiguity.

[5] Smith, L. et al (2020) Factors associated with adherence to self-isolation and lockdown measures in the UK: a cross-sectional survey. Public Health DOI: 10.1016/j.puhe.2020.07.024

[6] Freud, S. (1894) The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence

Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, London:Hogarth Press and Institute of Psychoanalysis. (Revised edition: 1968 (UK))

[7] The Bridge of Tolerance, Dubai, UAE www.structurae.net


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