If the shoe was on the other foot

Tolerance is a two-way street… for grown-ups

Children seem more grown up when they stop to think how others around them are feeling. Teachers and parents know it. When I was a teacher, I saw that the kindest children could mentally step into others’ shoes. In a time of political fear I begin to wonder if we could all do with a dose of growing up?

We see kids having tantrums when the rules start applying to them. But they learn that life feels much fairer and games ultimately feel more fun when we all play by the same rules and accept the odd uncomfortable consequence for the greater good. We learn that the discomfort doesn’t hurt as much as chaos and oppression does.

I’m a proud wearer of the red poppy to mark the heroic sacrifices of British troops. I come from a family where many served in the armed forces. As it happens, the majority of the public also wear it with pride. But some people take this too far and see it as a test of patriotism. This means that broadcasters pressure every person on television to wear one and some people call for people who don’t wear one to be fired. But what if the shoe was on the other foot? If the public mood was that most people annually wore a badge to protest against the armed forces then these same voices would suddenly value their freedom to choose not to wear it. If the shoe was on the other foot, what should the rules look like? Apply those rules now.

I’m a gay man and I have benefited hugely from new legislation to allow me to marry my handsome, wonderful husband. Over the years many heroic people took full advantage of their democratic right to protest and express minority views in order to change public opinion. This made a great many socially conservative people very uncomfortable indeed. Now, under new laws, the shoe is on the other foot. There are a number of social conservatives who oppose same sex marriage. It pains me hugely to accept it and makes me and many others really quite uncomfortable and sad, but now that the shoe is on the other foot, what hypocrisy it would be to try and use the force of law to prevent these protests. If we suddenly find ourselves with a government that wants to strip away the right to marry then we will be glad of our legal right to protest. Rather that we accept the discomfort and put our support behind these protections even when we personally suffer from them.

Where this begins to fall down is where these rights are abused. Hiding behind freedom of expression to tell lies undermines us all. Extremists undermine nations by promoting hideous distortions and untruths and denouncing rather than engaging with debate. Governments eat away at our faith in democracy by using their power to hide truths. Newspapers demean their trusted position with massive front page lies that are later retracted in micro print on page 17. Any one of us who republish conspiracy theories while dismissing any counter evidence as ‘they would say that wouldn’t they’ weakens social media.

In great schools, we teach children to engage with uncomfortable views and different perspectives. We demand a high standard of truth and patience to engage and discuss. We teach the value of law that protects us all and we teach history to caution against oppression.

Right now, I’ve never known such a time of high political tension, of despair and anger. We’d all do very well to keep applying the test — what if the shoe was on the other foot?