Is “Tolerance” the Straight Path for Cultural Diversity?

Is “Tolerance” the Straight Path for Cultural Diversity?

December 2012

I have two hats: I am a member of the Turkish parliament as well as an anthropologist. Today, I am attending this forum with my anthropologist hat. Let me explain to you all why I chose one hat over the other for today’s meetings.

To the best of my knowledge, anthropology is the only academic discipline that devotes an entire course to the topic of culture. Anthropology is also the only academic discipline that has a consistent difficulty in providing a concise definition of the term “culture.” Since anthropologists’ storytelling skills outperform their definitional skills, I prefer to contribute to the dialogue forum on cultural diversity and tolerance through a story of my own.

Back in my days as an academic, four works of calligraphy – what is called “Hüsn-ü Hat” in Turkey – used to adorn my office and demonstrate my intellectual path in the university. “Hoflgör Ya Hu” is a call to tolerance, compassion, and mercy. “Edep Ya Hu” is a call to proper conduct, manners, morality, and ethics. “Bu da Geçer Ya Hu” is a call to patience, perseverance, and acceptance since nothing lasts forever. “Hiç” meaning nothing and void is an existential call that neither needs nor allows the pinpointing its call.

One could easily contemplate better expressions of diversity, pluralism, and coexistence. How about embracing, encouraging, recognizing, promoting, needing, or benefiting from difference?

When we bring these four works of calligraphy together, we come quite close to the ideal of a university, as a sanctuary of diversity (Hoflgör Ya Hu), ethics (Edep Ya Hu), wisdom (Bu da Geçer Ya Hu), and transcendence (Hiç). These four mantras also seem apt for a European Union that aims to be the sanctuary of diversity among all other ideals.

Clearly, the most challenging of these four concepts is “hoflgörü,” roughly translated as tolerance, especially since the two concepts refer to quite different sentiments in English and Turkish languages. The English word “tolerate” comes from the Latin word “tolerare” meaning to bear or to endure. This obviously is quite a different sentiment in comparison to “hoflgör,” which means to see or perceive in a good or pleasant manner.

As Benjamin J. Kaplan’s brilliant study “Divided by Faith” demonstrates, the European history of tolerance, which is from another perspective the long history of inter-sectarian fighting and the failure to exterminate, subjugate or assimilate others, invokes a different set of sentiments shaped around conflict, fighting, and mass killings. This could be one of the reasons why Mehmet Aydın reminded us of Jacques Derrida’s suggestion to use the word “hospitable” instead of “tolerate.”

“Being hospitable to difference” sounds more positive than “being tolerant towards difference.” Anthropologists such as Michael Herzfeld, however, would warn you that hospitality is first and foremost a sentiment of hierarchy, setting the rules and limits governing the relations between the host and the guest. Hospitality, therefore, is an expression of power asymmetry, not necessarily a great metaphor of diversity.


One could easily contemplate better expressions of diversity, pluralism, and coexistence. How about embracing, encouraging, recognizing, promoting, needing, or benefiting from difference? These conceptualizations inevitably bring us to inter-cultural education and inter-cultural competence. I am, however, quite skeptical of the references to inter-culturality in dialogue forums like the one we are attending today, since I have seen too many a times that those who allude to inter-culturality are often quite brutish about intra-cultural difference. Needless to say, Turkey is example par excellence for this double-standard attitude.

In the end, questions about inter- or intra-culturality, are questions about authenticity, purity, borders, demarcations; in short, questions about essential and incommensurable differences. Those who are familiar with Homi Bhabha’s take on hybridity, colonial anxiety and ambivalence, or Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptualization of polyphony and the “carnivalesque” would prefer to distance themselves from the “essentials” in the field of cultural interaction. Hybridity, creole, and mélange seem to be more appropriate framings of the emergence of a new world and its accompanying humanity, characterized first and foremost by diversity.

In this new world, would an increased amount of knowledge be the path to salvation in the university, in the media, and in the European Union? I doubt this strongly. As one of my favorite medieval polymaths, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, once said “a ton of science is in need of a kilo of morality.” In the footsteps of Razi’s critical take, my conclusion has to remain an inquiry: Regardless of the amount and quality of knowledge we provide to students, journalists, politicians, and Eurocrats, what are the values, morality, or ethics we should offer them to sustain and to promote cultural diversity, pluralism, and the never-ending emergence of hybrid subjects and forms that will inevitably lead to ambivalence and anxiety? Clearly, these are sentiments that human societies are not terribly comfortable with. “Comfort,” as anyone who has encountered Ian McEwan’s “The Comfort of Strangers” can attest, is a deeply problematic concept, just like “hospitality.” But that’s a long story better saved for another dialogue forum…

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