Taking Children Seriously

Tolerance and TCS

Posted on the TCS List on Mon, 12 Jun 2000, by Sarah Fitz-Claridge

TCS people are sometimes accused of being intolerant because we criticise parents. Let's look a bit more closely at this idea.

Tolerance is certainly a necessary value in any decent society. But what exactly does a decent society (or person) tolerate? Not everything, obviously. A society that tolerates mass murder, for instance, is not a tolerant society at all. At the very least, I think that tolerance means openness to ideas that we dislike or think false. We should not interfere with people who want to defend such ideas – but also people who want to live according to them, so long as doing so does not itself amount to intolerance. This is the basic idea of liberalism.

But all this comes down to ideas. The basic reason for tolerance, in my opinion, is that human beings are fallible. We may be mistaken in any of our ideas, including those which we feel most certain are true. I do not want to be stuck in a mistake for ever, so I advocate seeking truth, which entails striving to remain open to criticism – open to ideas one may think false. Openness also entails not judging theories by their source, but by their content alone. Thus, I advocate tolerance and inclusion in the deepest possible sense. In my scheme of things, no one's ideas are to be excluded because of their source, and the TCS person always assumes that his or her idea could be wrong and the other person's right. I'd say we are a deeply tolerant and inclusive bunch.

I hope you will agree that in a deep sense, TCS is the most inclusive, tolerant philosophy of human interactions you will find anywhere. Instead of excluding children, as all other educational philosophies do, we include them. Many people would pay pious lip service to the idea of including children, but to me they seem to be changing the words while continuing to do what was always done. Instead of saying that everyone must in good conscience act as they each think right except children, who must do as their parents tell them or suffer whatever coercion their parents subject them to to force them to comply, we say that everyone must act in accordance with their own values. No one is excluded in my scheme of things, not even children.

But what about tolerance of intolerant/bad ideas? I have said that we should tolerate those too. Why? Because every new idea starts off as a minority idea, being held by just one person, its creator. Even true new ideas will usually seem to everyone other than their creator to be false when they are first created, so just being tolerant of ideas which seem true/good is not enough. We have to be tolerant of all ideas including those we think entirely false and abominable. Intolerance of ideas prevents or hinders the growth of knowledge that would otherwise solve real problems in real lives in the real world, that is to say, that would otherwise change the world for the better.

But the concept of being “tolerant of intolerance” can also mean something very different – the antithesis of what I have been speaking of above. Being “tolerant of intolerance” in this second sense is fundamentally intolerant and exclusive. In this second sense, it means things like turning one's back while 6 million Jews get murdered by the Nazis, or not passing judgement on the president of Zimbabwe as he dispossesses all the whites in his country, or not opposing the policy of staying tolerantly silent about Chinese human rights abuses (on the grounds that “it's none of our business” and “it's their country, and their people, not ours”). In that sense, being “tolerant of intolerance” means “Other countries should be tolerant of human rights violations.” That is not tolerance of ideas, that is tolerance of the intolerance of ideas.

The world can't be tolerant unless the tyrants of the world are defeated. Tolerating them is itself intolerant. It is either condoning their fundamental intolerance (their use of force against innocent people) or, very often, collaborating with it.

But what about the hypothetical parents living next door who beat their children? Shouldn't we be tolerant of them too? After all, they do love their children and want what is best for them, and they are only doing what they think right under the circumstances, just as we are. Isn't passing judgement upon them an example of intolerance? How can I possibly say, as I do, that it is wrong of those parents to beat their children, while I claim to be fundamentally tolerant and inclusive? Am I not being intolerant of them?

The answer is that I think that condoning violence against innocent people is an evil that is itself itself a form of intolerance. Of course I am not at all suggesting that the loving child-beater is in the same league as Hitler, but nevertheless, being tolerant of or “including” the child-beaters is incompatible with including their children, for exactly the same logical reason as “including” the Nazis even as they commit mass murder is incompatible with “including” their victims. Including the parents means collaborating with their violence against their children.

Let me elaborate on that. I'm not saying we are obliged to set right all evil in the world. We are merely obliged not to collaborate in it. If you see the neighbours beating their children, there is, on the whole, no moral obligation upon you to do anything about that. But if you engage with that family, you immediately acquire some obligations of that kind. If you go round to dinner, and they beat their children, you have to at least speak against their actions: you do not necessarily have to do anything else, but you can't morally be a party to it, and if you say nothing, that is tantamount to collaborating with the parents against the children being beaten. For instance, you provide the audience (whether or not you literally watch) who, the parents are claiming, are on their side against the children. Being humbled and punished with the world's approval is part of the punishment that the children are experiencing. That is a significantly different experience from being attacked illegitimately in the eyes of the world, by someone who is deemed a thug by the world or at least by someone of significance – you. By keeping silent, you convert the second experience into the first, thus making yourself a significant collaborator in the wrong and the harm that is being done.

When the parents next door beat their children, they do so on the basis of some morality. They are, in beating their children, telling their children that they, the parents, are in the right, and that the children are in the wrong. Some argue that I am being “intolerant” for either avoiding such people like the plague or mentioning that I think what they are doing is wrong. I am told (often rather spitefully!) that I should not mention that I think that it is wrong. In saying this, my critics are declaring the child-beating to be not a moral issue. To say (as people often do) “It's not something I would do, but it works for them” is to say that there is no moral difference between the two choices. That is in itself a moral judgement. It is a moral judgement that it is right to beat innocent children. There is no way to remain neutral in these matters, when “neutrality” means collaborating with the child-beaters.

This situation reminds me a bit of something else: Helmut Kohl has often stood up and said that what we must learn from the Second World War is that it is war which is the real enemy. Such statements imply that there was no significant moral issue at stake in the Second World War, or that whatever the issue was, it was not such as to justify war. But if that is true, it follows that the Allies were wrong to fight the war. And if so, it follows that he is saying that the Nazis were right. Therefore, to say things like “It is war that is the real enemy” (or in this case, “You shouldn't judge child-beating parents”) is to deem those who fought the Nazis (or those who pass judgement on the child-beaters) the immoral parties, and by implication, to say that the Nazis (or the child beaters) were right.

People who say that I should not pass judgement on child-beaters are passing moral judgement on moral judgements. That is to say, they think that making statements against child-beating is so wrong that it warrants moral condemnation.... but that using violence (on children) is not such as to warrant moral condemnation. My critics are willing to pass moral judgement on those of us who merely mention our opinion (that we think the neighbours are wrong to beat their children), but they are not willing to pass moral judgement upon people who beat people (their children).

What is one to make of the idea that it is wrong merely to express an opinion in words, but not wrong to use violence? If I were to adopt the child-beaters' approach and, instead of merely expressing my opinion, beat these neighbours just like they beat their children, would my critics who say that I should not express such opinions then condemn anyone who mentioned that they think I am doing the wrong thing? Of course they wouldn't.

Why do my critics never say of TCS people, “Don't pass judgement on them”? Why do they not say of the children being beaten, “Don't pass judgement on them”?! (N. B. in this context, “pass judgement upon” is a euphemism for “use violence against”) Why do they only ever say that of the child-beating parents against whom I am speaking out? Why are TCS people and children excluded? Why is it only the child-beating parents who are immunised from criticism in this way?

Let's get this straight: I am not advocating violence against the child beaters, I merely advocate expressing an opinion. If only that was all the child-beating parents did with their children....

And of course, I advocate not collaborating with any coercion, even the most subtle psychological kinds more “gentle” parents use. The child-beating neighbour is just a very obvious example that even some non-TCS people can see is coercion. I chose an overt form of coercion in the hope that the point will not get lost amidst the question of whether or not the parents are in fact coercing their children or not. And because someone raised this particular example in a conversation with me recently. 8-)

A followup post by David Deutsch

Debra Kattler wrote:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge wrote:

“Let me elaborate on that. I'm not saying we are obliged to set right all evil in the world. We are merely obliged not to collaborate in it. If you see the neighbours beating their children, there is, on the whole, no moral obligation upon you to do anything about that. But if you engage with that family, you immediately acquire some obligations of that kind. If you go round to dinner, and they beat their children, you have to at least speak against their actions: you do not necessarily have to do anything else, but you can't morally be a party to it,”

Do you think the obligation ends after you have said something on numerous occasions? I'm talking about situations where you have told them quite clearly what you think about their words and actions (although they probably don't “get it”). And you continue to spend time with them only because your child wants to see their child. Do you (and others) think you should speak out each and every time you witness the “beating” (coercive behavior)? I'm curious to hear opinions on how far this obligation goes.

cvach wrote:

This speaking out does pose a problem in that a parent could estrange people and end up with the coercive parent not allowing their child to play with the TCS kids anymore. Does our kids playing with kids from coercive families make us complicit? Who would our kids play with – or who could we ourselves associate with – if we alienate conventional parents with our strong beliefs in morality? Not that I think that we could not hold these beliefs even if we didn't want to.... not like one can just get tired of believing that coercion is harmful and immoral behavior wrong, and simply decide to believe differently....

How about a child who wants to attend school? As discussed here in the past, a TCS parent dealing with the beaurocracy of a school in a way that benefits their child and helps the child get what they want of school, might put the parent in a position of specifically not speaking out against immoral behavior towards children on the part of the school in order to pave the way for what a child wants.

The obligation, as I understand it, is not to make a symbolic gesture, like a boycott of some country or company you disapprove of. It's not a matter of being a good citizen (or a good-TCS-citizen). It's not a matter of having to declare one's allegiance to the right side. It's not a matter of avoiding guilt by association or of being tainted by someone else's actions. It's not a matter of being automatically ‘deemed’ responsible for what happens to children in your vicinity by some stern rule of TCS morality. The only thing you have to avoid is actually harming someone. Harming someone merely by being present when they are being harmed, and saying nothing, is fortunately a rare situation, but as Sarah said, it can happen. When it does, one has the obligation to say or do whatever is necessary to remove oneself from the chain of causality that is doing the harm. These things can be subtle, but the obvious example is where a child is being punished by a method that involves an audience, e.g. being publicly told off in order to make her feel more shame. Then you have to make it clear to her that you dissent from the united front that is trying to shame her; and usually you have to do this publicly because otherwise your furtiveness will serve to confirm in her mind the theory that there is something shameful about your stance, and therefore something shameful about about her too, and then you will not have extricated yourself causally from the process that is harming her. But you do not have to do it harshly or aggressively. On the contrary, that would normally serve only to confuse the issue, as well as being tactically unwise.

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