The Myth of Tolerance: Ricard Zapata-Barrero

April 30th, 2012

Understanding tolerance in the first decades of the Europe of the 21st century sets the frame for a new study of diversity combining the many theoretical debates and policies in Europe.  We spoke to Dr. Ricard Zapata-Barrero, co-editor with Anna Triandafyllidou of Addressing Tolerance and Diversity Discourses in Europe: Comparative Overview of 16 European Countries (Barcelona: CIDOB/GRITIM-UPF, 2012).

Prof. Ricard Zapata-Barrero is the Director of GRITIM-UPF (Interdisciplinary Research Group on Immigration) at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain.

Here is an excerpt from the book, followed by our interview:

“During the first decade of the 21st century, we need to undertake an intensive debate on the reasons underlying racist and discriminatory behaviour towards minorities and what can be done to enhance societal cohesion in European societies and to limit growing ideologies seeking to segregate the population into “good” or “bad” persons according to their national origin, religion, language and culture.

The question that is being posed, sometimes in more, and others in less politically-correct terms, is what kinds of ethnic, cultural or religious diversity can be accommodated within liberal and secular democracies and in what ways.

Our focus, in Addressing Tolerance and Diversity Discourses in Europe: Comparative Overview of 16 European Countries, is not only on diversity but also on whether we reject, tolerate or accept/respect specific diversity claims. We question tolerance as a concept, discuss its meaning in different contexts, and look at the practices of tolerance in different countries and towards different minority groups.

We propose tolerance as a concept and practice that stands between intolerance (the non acceptance of individuals, groups or practices) and acceptance, respect and public recognition of minority individuals, groups or practices.

We distinguish between:

  1. Non-toleration: Individuals, groups and practices who seek or for whom/which claims of toleration are being made but to whom/which toleration is not granted, and the reasons given in favour of or against toleration;
  2. Toleration: Individuals, groups and practices who seek or for whom/which claims of toleration are being made and to whom/which toleration is granted, and the reasons given in favour of or against toleration;
  3. Recognition, respect as equal and admission as normal: Individuals, groups and practices who seek or for whom/which it is claimed that toleration is not enough and other normative concepts, namely those that focus on majority-minority relations and the reform of institutions and citizenship, are or should be more relevant. They also include claims and processes towards the reconsideration of difference as a ‘normal’ feature of social life. Such concepts include equality, respect, recognition, accommodation and so on, and the reasons given in favour of or against these propositions.

The role of democracy in the development of a city’s culture is to foster a critical spirit and to develop the values of democracy, dialogue, deliberation, respect, pluralism, trust and tolerance, among others. By incorporating diversity in cultural policies, these values are activated and the link between society and culture is developed in both directions: the social development of culture and the cultural development of society.

The relationship between tolerance and respect or recognition of “what is categorized as different” is not necessarily a hierarchical one. Respect is not necessarily nor always a better institutional or practical solution for accommodating difference.  However, while tolerance may be appropriate for some diversity claims, respect and public recognition may offer a better ‘fit.’”

Cities of Migration interviewed Prof. Zapata about his work:

Your new book argues that tolerance has not always meant acceptance of minorities; rather, the ‘myth of tolerance’ can also conceals gaps in policy and forms of discrimination by institutions or governments.

We are asking whether there is a ‘European’ position on diversity that can help us understand how to deal with society’s diverse cultures and traditions. We thought it would be useful to look for common practice by analyzing responses across Europe on how we deal with diversity — to a diversity of traditions, diversity of cultures and so on. In the process we discovered that the concept of tolerance in Europe is not cut in stone and has many policy expressions.

So, the first important point about tolerance we learned is that it is a contextual concept. There is no, so to speak, ‘European’ concept of tolerance. Its meaning varies with context. Tolerance practices have social, political, historical, dimensions in each country. Our specific methodology is conflict-based, that is we analyze tolerance by selecting specific conflicts in each country which have a semantic potential of expressing tolerance practices. We then show how different countries, however similar the conflict analyzed, produce different responses to these conflicts, are more or less accepting, or tolerant of conflict. The main purpose of this book is to show how our ideas and institutions around tolerance are shaped by this diversity of context, including country and historical context.

And there are different ways to define tolerance –the book shows the practice of tolerance in the discourse of 14 European countries. All the contributors identify different expressions of tolerance in their country and analyze what local practices can tell us about the policy discourse. The common theoretical framework that guides us is a core notion of tolerance defined not in universal principles, but in three main potential policy practices: non-toleration; toleration, or acceptance; and, finally, what we call recognition and respect.

Your book suggests that historically, tolerance generally refers to the “absence of persecution of people but not their acceptance into society as full and welcomed members of community.” Are our ideas about tolerance changing?

One of the difficulties we had was the recognition that the semantics of tolerance always includes some sort of power dynamic. This is why we introduced the idea of ‘respect’ to our definition of tolerance. The concept of respect is what most people mean when they talk about tolerance — respect and acceptance. This is why the project is part of the Accept Pluralism project (Tolerance, Pluralism and Social Cohesion: Responding to the Challenges of the 21st Century in Europe).

If the concept of respect and acceptance is central to the idea of tolerance, then we can start to ask about the limits society puts on ‘acceptance’ when it comes to diversity. What can we accept? What is under negotiation when we talk about ‘acceptance’ and so on. The dividing line between what can we accept and what can not accept is the core of the semantic of tolerance we are exploring. We are of course aware, and we discuss it in our periodic meetings, that the concept of tolerance has a long European tradition, from the Enlightenment until today. But today, the normative liberal and democratic framework means the discourse of tolerance has many challenges to address through political debate and policy practices. For instance, the institutional discourse in Spain today does not speak explicitly about ‘tolerance’, however the notion is there, the practice is there. So we look for policy responses to diversity conflicts, encapsulate them under the categories of tolerance and then address issues of what we can and can not accept, what we can recognize or not, and where the limits of acceptance/non-acceptance lie in current policy practices in Europe.

In Spain, policy makers emphasize the concept of interculturality – respect and recognition for cultural, religious and ethnic differences. What is it about Spain that seems to have resulted in a more positive narrative on diversity?

First, the concept of interculturality is basically a concept related to city policy-making and tries to emphasize the importance of interaction among people of different origin. For example, within the Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities project – I coordinate the network of cities in Spain. We work with ten cities on how to frame an intercultural programme and examine how good practices in the area of intercultural policy have been applied in different cities. What is important in this term is the “inter.” “Inter” means interaction. The concept of interculturality emphasizes the importance of interaction between different people having different languages, nationalities, religions, cultures. The basic premise of intercultural policy is the idea that without public and political interventions that address the social dynamics of diversity, segregation can develop very quickly. The intercultural approach is seen as a policy strategy for bridging differences and to foster what I call a culture of diversity as the basis for social capital in diverse societies.

The other idea is that the accommodation of diversity is basically a local affair – in Spain, as elsewhere. Our research takes a city-based approach to identify the basic factors that have influenced the position of different cities in Spain towards diversity: linguistic, historical traditions, and – when we are speaking about the Spain -we are also speaking about a tradition based on the Catholic religion and Spanish language.

In Spain, we have this concept of Spanish-ness (Hispanidad) that is one of the driving forces of our diversity policies. “Hispanidad” tries to keep together the notion of a community that has been separated: Spain and the last of its Latin-American colonies. The concept originated at the end of the 19th century when Spain was losing its last colonies in Latin America, in the Philippines and so on. The concept of Hispanidad was created to keep together the idea of this extensive Spanish community that no longer had political links but shared a common language and a common religion, Catholicism. ‘So this idea of Hispanidad includes the concept of a community of diverse origin, made up of different countries that were politically completely distinct.

With Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1980s, these two categories [language and religion] were put aside as potentially a source of conflict and divisive to Spanish society. Questions formulated during the transition have re-emerged in the context of current diversity and immigration-related issues, and press both policymakers and society to seek specific answers to potential dilemmas such us: what is the role of the Catholic Church in education and in a public sphere made up of different religions? How to formulate coherent policy responses to practical demands related to dress code, religious festivities, worship, etc.? Is Spain composed of nations or of cultural communities without legitimizing claims to nation or statehood? Is Spain multinational? What is the political role of other languages in Spain such as Catalan, Basque and Galician? Should they enjoy the same level of recognition as the Spanish language? The contextual dependence of Spain on its recent past is at the core of these difficulties. Spain’s dilemma is to decide what model for society it aims to follow given the current diversity of national languages, religions and cultures.

This is the main focus of my next book (the provisional title is ‘Spain as a laboratory of multiple diversities’) where I suggest that what Spain is witnessing today is the intersection of two diversity models — each with its own public opinions and political narrative. And this is a unique case in Europe. Its central premise argues that Spain’s recent past and its diverse traditions play the role of an iron cage, limiting institutional innovation and structural change, and forcing Spain to follow a ‘practical’ approach characterized by a willingness to provide practical responses to current diversity-related conflicts, without any long-term model for a diverse society. I argue this limits the possibility of both institutional innovation and structural change in Spain.

You describe the city as the great laboratory for the management of diversity.

Cities have the power to manage certain issues freely, outside the framework of national policy and institutions. Local responses to diversity and tolerance make cities a laboratory for diversity practice. This local autonomy, while essentially positive, can also become a problem when, for example, it leads to a range of local policy responses to such essential issues as religious conflict and results administratively in dis-coordination between local governments, or impacts social cohesion. We cannot have different local policy responses to the burqa affair, for example. And this is what it is happening in Spain in this moment. How do we create cohesion as a society when local governments respond differently to common issues? We have a problem of coordination here. What are the limits of local authority around such diversity issues as they relate to the practice of tolerance?

Can you give us an example of a city that best expresses – at a personal level what it means to “Live Together” w respect for difference and equality?

The idea of living together can be measured as the absence of conflict. In this sense, Barcelona is a good example of a very rapid, recent experience of migration with no conflict. The challenge was how to create a feeling of identity and belonging. The city government recognized it had to create this sense of city identity beyond the diversities in the city. One of the keys to Barcelona’s success is the network of associations and people working together to identify potential conflicts and to have answers ready in advance. It was easy for all these groups, Chinese, French, Catalan and so on to come together because they share the same urban space and have the same feeling of belonging to the city. This is what I always refer to as Barcelona’s “community of citizens.” This sense of urban identity is much more important and contributes very directly to cohesion and the desire of immigrants to feel Catalan/Spanish or even European. This sense of urban identity needs to be better explored and politically managed. Here lies one of the driving forces behind the success of cities in the accommodation of diversity. Barcelona, consciously or not, is a good example of how cities manage well.

In Europe, Barcelona and Berlin share this kind of cosmopolitan and interesting interculturality.

This interview was edited and condensed for publication.

Dr. Ricard Zapata-Barrero is a Professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Spain). In 2009, he founded GRITIM-UPF (Interdisciplinary Research Group on Immigration), a multi-departmental group of researchers interested in the aspects of innovation in research and management of change processes arising from human mobility and immigration. That same year, he also set up the Official Master of Immigration Management that is accredited by the Spanish Government. He is a regular contributor to media and policy debates, and has served on a number of commissions and government committees. He is currently member of the Advisory Board for family and social policies of the Government of the Generalitat de Catalunya (2011).

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