About tolerance and ritual, and the problem of sincerity

A conversation on the sidelines of the International Summer School of Religion and Public Life in Nicosia, Cyprus in July 2010.

NT: You have written about the need for a new and deeper understanding of tolerance, beyond or instead of the modern understanding of tolerance which you criticise as often amounting to little more than “liberal indifference” – “I tolerate you because I don’t actually care what you think.” And that lack of interest in what makes us different to one another you call “the privatisation of difference.” What do you actually mean by that?

AS: What I mean is that in many societies the expectation – sometimes formal but often informal – is that you don’t bring your differences with you to the public square. That your religious preferences, for example, are a matter of private life, they have no place in the public realm. Differences are often understood as differences in aesthetic tastes – you like Impressionists, you like abstract art – it’s not a moral matter. Because the assumption is that if we disagree over moral matters, everything is going to fall apart. So we try to reduce our differences to simply aesthetic ones, to keep them under the table, not to flaunt them in public.

NT: So are you saying people should not privatise but publicise their differences?

AS: Yes, and I’m not making it as a moral claim so much as an important political claim, because I don’t think that in the long-run, what we’re calling privatisation really works.

What generally happens is that the “game” – I say that with hesitancy – of our interaction is played with the assumption “we’re all the same, that our differences are trivial or are kept invisible, and as long as everyone is making money and things are going as they should be going, everything is fine.”

But as soon as political or economic circumstances change then the “other” in all his or her “otherhood” becomes blatant, and we say “ah-ha, they lied to me, they pretended to be like me but they’re not like me at all”.

And you see this in certain countries in Europe today, vis-a-vis the Moslem population. You saw this in the 19th century and the 20th century with the Jews, where the notion was that they would assimilate, they would be the same.

And there was a level where they were like every other citoyen, every other member of the state. But when circumstances changed, the boundary which had actually been there all the time, but which had been thought did not exist, was suddenly visible again, and this had unfortunate consequences… to put it lightly.

NT: When you say that the “liberal model” doesn’t seem to be working – what evidence do you see for that?

AS: Let’s take the move by the West Midlands police in the United Kingdom to put surveillance cameras around the Moslem neighbourhoods of Birmingham in April 2010. That was a very clear example of the breakdown of any assumption that the citizenry is made up of autonomous separated moral agents going about their business. Instead, a community was regarded as a separate entity, and a post-modern ghetto wall was built around it. The development of the modern world puts us in cities in circumstances where we live together with the stranger. We don’t see the stranger as necessarily dangerous, but as possibly risky. And so the stranger, even though he or she is strange, shares some kind of community with us. It seems to me that what happened in Birmingham does just the opposite – it makes the person who is different, totally different and dangerous.

NT: Some might defend that action by saying that part of the Moslem community is turning inward, which makes it more alien to the wider society. Is this not somehow the Moslems’ fault?

AS: That might or might not be the case, but if it is, it doesn’t disprove but rather proves my point – that the liberal assumptions are not holding. We’re not allocating blame, we’re just discussing certain phenomena. I think that in all times and all places there are constant moves and shifts among all the social actors involved. So there is no doubt that what you described is happening, but then there are other phenomena which are moving the other way – of engagement between the citizenry and the police, and with the city council.

NT: For nine years you have explored this and related themes at the International Summer School on Religion and Public Life from Foca to Famagusta, from Bosnia to Cyprus. Are you suggesting an alternative model and teaching it, or are you searching for it with the other fellows?

AS: We’re searching together. I’m suggesting a direction. I’m suggesting that “some things don’t work”, and I’m saying “let’s look together to what might work, what might replace this liberal model.” People come here not only from different religions, countries, and professions, but also with very different political and philosophical commitments. There are strong secularists, as well as people who are deeply committed religiously. What we are trying to do is to say: Let’s try together to model a certain set of conditions, out of which a new way of framing or understanding reality can emerge. So there’s this constant movement, back and forth. To quote David Hume, “explanation is where the mind rests.” And what I’m suggesting is that we try together to change the place where the mind rests. I would in a general way like to change the frames of knowledge, or at least to see if this is possible in the school, and then to extrapolate out, from knowledge “of”, to knowledge “for”. So let’s imagine I’m organising a group of people in Birmingham or Jerusalem or Boston, to reclaim a park from drug-dealers or whatever, and I’m doing it together with my Moslem neighbours. What do I have to know about Islam to do this? Well I don’t need to know the true meaning of jihad. Because I will get a lot of different answers to that. What I have to know at this stage is not to schedule an organising meeting at the same time as Friday prayers, and not to bring pork sandwiches. Once we’ve organised together we will know more. What I will need to know for the next stage is different. So that is one insight that I have gained from the years of the summer school, the insight that we should try as much as possible to move from knowledge “of” – because there is no such thing, only God has knowledge “of” – to knowledge “for”.

NT: Would it not be enough to do as Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain has suggested, and think in terms of two languages which we all have to learn – our local one, and a universal one of human rights and democracy. And then to switch between those two languages?

AS: In this particular instance I agree less than I would like. First I think that people always spoke two languages, metaphorically speaking. In the Ottoman empire people spoke two languages, at least. But it is precisely in democratic nation states that the languages tend to be reduced to simply one. And if we think about the development of the nation state, multiple languages were literally destroyed to impose one language. I think actually part of the problem in the world that we live in is that we do all speak two languages, and because we all speak the second language, we think we share the first one. Because we all have this split screen, we all have our own internal languages, and we participate in this broader universal discourse, we think that our particular languages are the same – but they’re not!

We think we share thick ties of community with everybody else, but we don’t. All we share is a rather thin universal language. We have to develop the resources, within our own particular internal languages, within our metaphorical languages of belonging, of tolerance and acceptance of the other.

That is the whole point of the school, and that is why I use the word “tolerance” rather than “pluralism.”

And I’m very cogniscent of the negative associations which “tolerance” has in the West. After all, in medieval canon law only two types of people were “tolerated” – prostitutes and Jews. In both cases tolerance was the second best solution – “we’d rather be without them, but we need them.” So I’m aware of the baggage that the word carries. But I think it’s more honest. You cannot share deeply-held communities of belonging with everybody. The “other” is always there. So you tolerate the other. He or she who makes you uncomfortable. I don’t think that we should or can be comfortable with everybody.

Again, I think we can build these “pretend” communities, these veneers, these thin ties. But that’s not enough. When a bomb goes off in Leicester, that’s not enough, when economic situations change that’s not enough. Rather than developing these two languages, we should rather develop the resources of tolerance within the particular communities and particular languages to which we belong. Because from a particular language you are not going to develop a resource of pluralism.

In all the monotheistic religions everyone believes their boy went up the mountain, got the truth from God, and came back. Why should that be pluralist – what’s pluralist here? But you can be tolerant, and there are resources within all the traditions for this type of tolerance. That’s what I believe has to be developed, and in that way we can learn to live together differently, rather than living together pretending that we’re the same. And that’s what I think the trick is.

The community of belonging is characterised by a notion that we are members of it forever. Even a trans-historical belonging. That we are part of this community from ‘time out of mind’ as the Greeks used to say, and we’ll continue beyond our lifetimes to be part of it. Whereas our membership in other communities is transient.

If you understand that in the world we live in, we’re going to be together with ‘the other’ forever, we will never be the other but we will be together with the other forever. That’s a significant way into developing these resources for tolerance from within the tradition. You realise that you are connected to the other with the same type of transhistorical bonds that you are connected to the members of your own community, even though he or she is not necessarily part of that same community of belonging. We have people here at the school who are deeply religious, and others who are committed secularists.

NT: What are the criteria of success for the summer school?

AS: The summer school has three goals. To see the other, to see yourself seeing the other, and to see the other see you. If that happens, that’s already a lot. And it means something else has happened. That somehow, in some way you have managed to de-centre yourself. To change the frames through which you experience and look at and understand reality, or at least to learn that there are multiple frames. And I would imagine that part of this process is to get people to admit that we really are different. And the differences go all the way down. So those are the criteria of the success, not on the organisational level but on the level of what we hope to achieve with the fellows and with ourselves.

NT: What are you actually up against? What are you trying to change?

AS: We’re trying to change the way people think. We’re up against the assumption that everything is either “fine because everybody is like us”, or “not fine, because it’s those others who are not like us, who don’t share our moral universal values, who are making it less than fine.” That’s what we’re up against. And this is so deeply entrenched in the way we think that it’s very difficult work to break these frames of reality, and try and learn together to put them together in a new way. You shouldn’t expect this to be easy, from the simple level of bringing people from fifteen different countries, to providing for the religious needs of everybody. We have people here from all over, Jews and Moslems and Palestinians and Blacks and Women and Gays, all kinds of people, members of all sorts of groups who feel that they have a monopoly on human suffering. And that because they have such a monopoly, they feel they have certain entitlements, they have a certain privileged moral position that comes out of this unique suffering. And we say that one of the rules of the school is that however you feel about this being a Jew, or a Moslem or a Palestinian or a Gay or whatever, you have to act as if you didn’t feel unique, that your group suffered uniquely in human history. Now we don’t expect people to change the way that they feel, I don’t think people will change. I really don’t think people can change that. But in our actions with one another we have to act as if we don’t feel we have a monopoly on human suffering and hence have some entitlement from the other. And here in Cyprus you can see just how important suffering is in all the narratives of the conflict.

NT: Who are you trying to convince?

AS: I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. There are only two rules to the summer school – that you have to show up to every event, and that you have to act to one another as if your group did not have the monopoly of human suffering. It’s amazing how difficult it is to maintain those two little rules.

Our experiment is to see if we can build a community for these two weeks between us, where the differences are part of the very fabric of what we’re building, rather than denying them or trivialising them. We can stand in front of that church and relate to it very differently, if we are Jews, or Moslems, or Christians. And still be part of such a deep community – albeit for just two weeks. I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything, just like I’m not trying to convert a Moslem and I hope the Moslem would not be trying to convert the Christian, and I’m not trying to convert the secular person – that’s not the point at all.

NT: Several times in discussions you have mentioned Aristotle’s model of the lead on the top of the well. Could you explain that image, and why you like it so much?

AS: It was the builders’ rule, which was made of lead so it could fit gently to the shape of the rocks, the terrain, so that they could be measured. I like it because it balances abstract universal principles – a ruler is 12 inches or 100 centimetres – with the fact that you also have to account for the particular, for the local, for the concrete, which never really fits into these abstract, generalised principles. That’s why I like it, and that’s the only way I think we can move ahead in terms of living together.

We cannot reduce everything to the particular, because the particulars are different. Nor can we subsume all particularities, all differences to the abstract. This was precisely Burke’s critique of the French Revolution. To a certain extent all societies find a way to deal with the proper valences between the general and the particular. The “enlightened project”, the project of modernity is very strongly about subsuming the particular into the general and the universal, and losing the particular. And as we know the results of that have been particularly brutal, in the 20th and now in the 21st century.

NT: You mentioned in class how once in Mostar, in Herzegovina, you commented to a priest that a certain cross on a certain hill was a “particularly bad one.” And I would have agreed with you, because I know how often in Bosnia crosses have been used as weapons, to deliberately insult Moslems. You related also the priest’s response: “how can you say the cross is bad?” You were pleased with his comment, while I would have argued with him.

AS: I wouldn’t, because I didn’t feel the need to argue with him. In other words, for me that was a moment of understanding, not about the crosses in Herzegovina, but about human communication. And what we know and don’t know about the other. He didn’t say “how can one say that a cross is bad?” He was simply speaking about himself, speaking from his own tradition. And then I realised the difference between how a Jew sees a cross and how a Christian priest sees a cross. That’s all, and that for me was an important moment of enlightenment. We think we are talking about the same things, but we’re not. The histories, the valences, the conscious, preconscious, unconscious meanings, the resonances which flutter just below consciousness of so many things. A mosque in Nicosia, which was converted from a church, with its Gothic architecture and its traceries, will be very different for different people.

And so what we call tolerance, means to live with what makes you uncomfortable.

I think we have to re-imagine tolerance as something like “suffering your own discomfort.” Learning that what makes you comfortable is not the benchmark of what is right and proper. So you have to learn to live with the fact that you are uncomfortable about something.

NT: Isn’t that by definition only ever going to be possible for a small group of people? How can you ask “the masses” to think like that?

AS: I don’t know what “masses” are. I think that the basic problems of existence are the same for all of us. At some moments of our lives we all face them. Death, birth, moments of great joy and great tragedy. Some people have greater, some have fewer intellectual resources to come to terms with them. I’m uncomfortable with the notion of “masses”. Reverend Toby Howarth, Secretary for Inter Religious Affairs for the Church of England, described this summer school as something between an organisation and a social movement. And I think he’s right. We have to constantly dance that small edge. Because a movement is a project to teach, a movement knows the truth, and knows what has to be done. But we don’t know. We’re exploring. So in that way its a pedagogical endeavour, a university endeavour, a research endeavour. It does have that element of wanting to spread, and wanting to duplicate itself, and it needs an organisational aspect with roles and expectations and people. At the same time, it is important that it does not solidify and become moribund as so many academic institutions have done. I prefer to go step by step. I don’t have a grand vision, with blueprints for a headquarters.

That would involve not the lead rule but a steel rule which doesn’t bend, and which you impose on reality. You shift the reality to make it fit the rule. That is not what we want. We shift the reality a little because we’re using the rule to build, but we also have to take account of the terrain – step by step. Which is why this school is so labour-intensive, so difficult, so gruelling a project.

NT: So what you’re talking about is a kind of Gypsy caravan of wagons, of painted wagons crossing a landscape?

AS: I like the Gypsy metaphor. That’s what the summer school attempts to do. For a start, we have this crazy thing of having it in a different country every year. At fixed universities like Boston, or Harvard, or Siena or wherever, they think they have the truth. But we don’t think we have the truth. We’re trying to formulate the questions. And the only way to do that is your image of a Gypsy caravan – two weeks in a different country each year. This year in two countries – Israel and Cyprus. The Roma are very hospitable people, and I hope the summer school is as hospitable as Roma people are. It’s a wonderful image for me. So one has to imagine a university like a gypsy caravan. But we’re not there yet.

NT: I would like to ask you about irony. About a very central European form of humour, which can either heal, or cause pain.

AS: I once had a public row with an English sociologist about irony, and the point I tried to make was: I can’t raise my children on irony. It’s fine, but you have to stand somewhere. And irony by itself doesn’t give you a position from which to teach your children not to steal, not to lie, to be good people, to be concerned with others, and the moral values which presumably even the ironic would share.

How do I teach my child not to cheat in an exam? How do I teach my child the  value of fair play? Of not going home in a huff if she loses a soccer game? I can’t do that on the basis of irony.

When you know what a person stands for, what is sacred for them – it could be human rights and it could be transsubstantiation – you know who they are, and what they are. If all you have is irony, you have no idea what you are touching. You have no idea if they belong to a moral community – any moral community – or whether there is anything for which they would be willing to sacrifice their own interests. And I think that’s the problem with irony.

NT: You also spoke in Budapest in June, and here in Cyprus, about ritual and sincerity.

AS: Some mention of ritual is a way both of building boundaries and connecting. Remember two things. If we are talking about difference, then we are also talking about boundaries. If you ever owned property or shared a hotel wall with somebody else, you know that walls and boundaries both separate, and connect. They do both, though we tend to see them just as separating. But they also connect, and I think ritual plays that role. I recently co-authored a book, Ritual and its Consequences – An essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford University Press, 2008) in which we put forward the rather counter-intuitive argument that ritual is good, and sincerity is bad. We undoubtedly overstate the case. But what is interesting is that all these modern secularists, who are so ironic, are really insulted by the attack on sincerity. And the claim in the book is that the modern world is a very sincere world, and that it posits as an ideal, the ideal of intention.

Kant’s notion that good will is a good in itself. We critique that and follow the point made by Nagel and Williams that however good the good will may be, saving someone from a burning building is not the same, is morally different from unintentionally dropping them to their death in the act of saving them.

Of course the Kantian notion of good will would deny that difference. What we call the “sincere model” in the book privileges intention over action, and assumes an ability to discern utter transparency which we think is impossible. The inside can never be expressed in the outside. The intent can never be expressed in the action.

NT: Would you say that “sincerity” is just as much out of human touch as irony?

AS: Look up sincerity and see what you come up with: “unadulterated, pure”. With anyone you love, you know there are moments of great hatred as well, so this model of oneness does not stand the test. We juxtapose that to ritual. Our argument is that while sincerity tries to make the world whole, ritual gives us a way to live in a broken world. And the attempt to make the world whole is very dangerous. Communism was an attempt to make the world whole. So was Fascism. And I’m much more comfortable, as with tolerance, with second-best solutions, and not with trying to make the world whole, and pure…we can’t do that. The attempt to do that has resulted in a vast number of deaths and murders. This is very important when we look at Islam, and the attitudes of western policy makers and academics towards Islam. They want to reform Islam. They want an Islam which is not so legal, not so traditional, that will accord with our institutional structures, and they will be like us. But if you look at the most radical and dangerous movements within the Islamic world today, they are very sincere movements. They are very modern movements – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, all of these are modern movements, they quintessentially bring together religion with modern, often nationalist, Palestinian aspirations that are purely western. And with a notion of self which is very western, very Herderian – this notion of self-expression through a religious act. So not a case of “my religious act is taking on the obligations imposed by God,” but rather “I express myself through my religious act”.

And this can be done by left-wing liberal Jews in a synagogue who change the prayer to make it accord with their political assumptions, and it can be done by Baruch Goldstein who slaughtered people in the tomb of the Patriarchs. And the same thing in Islam. This is pure nineteenth century Central European nationalism, rather than the traditional notion that religion is taking on obligations from outside of us. Which is a more ritualistic way of understanding what this is all about.

NT: When you speak of ritual – are you talking about everyday, even “insincere” rituals, or about deep religious rituals?

AS: I’m talking about both. We claim precisely that what makes human community possible, is what you are calling the insincere rituals of “hello, how are you?” to people you don’t remember, and the last thing you want is for them to tell you how they really are. This is not insincerity, because it’s not about truth or falsehood. It is rather a form of interaction, which at that moment builds a world. “Please pass the salt” or “gimme the salt!” Each reference a very different world. My saying “please” is a purely ritualistic, “insincere”, baroque expression of my acceptance that you could say “no”. I phrase it as a request, and we do this even in situations where people can’t say no – to our children, or our students or whoever. Because at that moment when we say “please” we are constructing – for however fleeting a moment – a time of equality and mutual recognition. And if I say “gimme the salt” rather than “would you please…”, I create a very different reality. One that is brutal and dominated by power. With the ritual we create, admittedly fleetingly, a moment of mutual recognition in the civic realm that has nothing to do with religion.

And it has boundaries, just as religion has boundaries, when you sit in a church and a person is leaving the church and they cross themselves, and turn their back to the iconostasis or the the cross or to the priest offering the mass. There’s a break, there’s something holy in there and you have to leave it. And ritual is constantly teaching us that, constantly teaching us these breaks, these divisions. While sincerity, again metaphorically, is constantly holding out this hope that it all can be done.

NT: When you say, let us dare to be different, and let us flaunt our differences, some might respond that we have enough wars, and conflicts and problems already – how much worse will they be if we give up even trying to be the same?

AS: We are who we are in the face of the other. And who is the ultimate other? God. But on a lesser plane, I am who I am vis-a-vis you. There is nothing essential in me, or in you, or in any of us. What’s essential is shared with baboons and chimpanzees or with life itself, it doesn’t help us get anywhere. And that’s why the differences have to be acknowledged. We are different precisely in the face of the other, and we have to build the city together, on the basis of that recognition, and acceptance of the differences of who we are, and of the need of the other, to be who they are.

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