The French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire once said: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”. This is the liberal ideal upon which much of Western civilisation was built.
Modern Europe is still attached to the conviction that there is no such thing as too much tolerance – that freedom of speech is a basic human right that should not be impinged upon. But immigration, far-Right extremism and anti-Semitism are testing the solidity of our values. This leads us to a vital question: how do we maintain liberal principles without being tolerant of the intolerable?
One of the fallouts of the financial crisis has been an undermining of a European identity, which was established on the pillars of globalisation and open borders. Politics today is often polarised, and occasionally paralysed, with politicians who strive for answers swept aside by those riding the wave of anger and frustration felt by large sections of society.
We must find ways to protect our freedoms without leaving ourselves open to violence and hatred. If we are to achieve sustained security and protect our civil liberties, we must re-examine our attitudes to tolerance, which can no longer be unconditionally applied to those who reject the very principles of open-mindedness.
As a society we must ask ourselves some tough questions. Should preachers be allowed to influence our youth without any checks and balances? Should criticism (or a boycott) of Israel be tolerated in instances that deploy the type of anti-Semitic tropes seen in the 1930s? Should women, homosexuals or other people not deemed sufficiently devout be vilified and have their rights restricted with impunity? And, crucially in today’s digital society, to what extent should technology and media companies, such as Facebook, Google and others, take responsibility for the dissemination of hate and fake news on their platforms?
Unless we are able to change the discourse about what tolerance means and how we safeguard it, we are at risk of losing the very freedoms we are trying to protect. European society today too readily turns a blind eye to hate speech, incitement and other illiberal behaviours in the name of free speech. But if we are to protect our civil liberties, we cannot tolerate violence, terrorism and those supporting it. As well as defending liberal values, we must robustly confront illiberal values.
Such is the principle behind the Kantor Prize for Secure Tolerance, a new initiative launched by The European Council On Tolerance & Reconciliation, which offers a €1 million grant for new ideas to help solve one of the biggest challenges of our time: preserving and creating free, open and pluralist societies whilst maintaining security.
We cannot sit back and let extremism and intolerance become an accepted part of our public discourse. We must take an active approach to preventing radicalisation, focusing our resources on addressing the greatest threats to society: hate speech, political radicalisation and not integrating diverse communities.
We urgently need a new thinking that is rooted in European principles of pluralism, accepted by both political leaders and society at large. This new thinking must in turn trigger new initiatives to contain the threat that violence and hate speech bring to our universal values. Civil society may not have the ability to directly change or implement legislation, but it can certainly inspire and prompt the process of creative thinking to change the world we live in.
To prompt a generational shift we must weed out cultural prejudice and intolerance from our education systems, or risk polluting young minds. A combined response from the international community is also necessary, as intolerance is not confined to our borders.
Unless we change the prevailing discourse around what tolerance means and how we secure it, we are at risk of losing the fundamental values on which successful and prosperous societies are built. We can only break the cycle of radicalisation and extremism if we are prepared to re-evaluate our priorities, and think afresh.