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A Rationale For Tolerance
Oct 1, 2003

My dearest friend,

This time, with your permission, I won't be talking about the last two weeks that I have spent in this alien city, as I usually do. Instead, I feel obliged to reflect on your anger at the fact that your father did not use the opportunity he had during his youth to become a medical doctor. What I'm going to tell you has been said by many great thinkers in the past, but I want to bring their words up-to-date and relate them to my studies here. I hope to give you an alternative understanding of tolerance by using the idea of networks.

As commonly defined, networks are web-like maps of nodes that represent entities and links that connect the nodes and represent their interactions. Networks have become very popular these days, and are used to analyze everything from ecology and biochemistry to social infrastructures.

Try to visualize your father 30 years ago in a large network that consisted of his two brothers and three sisters, his fiance of 2 years standing, maybe a very close friend who had recently died, maybe another friend who already had had a child, along with the fear of leaving his hometown for the first time, and so on. All of us, including your father, are surrounded by such factors all the time. Perhaps your father could have overcome some of them, like his fear of loneliness or impatience, but he certainly could not have overcome all of them, because his family, surrounding events, and many other factors existed on their own and didn't develop according to your father's will.

Upon further reflection, however, maybe none of these factors, even the trivial ones, were ever in his grasp and thus were never under his control. Let's think back even further. When your father was in the womb, he had only one obvious link with the world: his mother. But wait a minute, you might ask, didn't he have other links, such as his genes, family, and birthplace? Of course, you would agree that your father had no choice in any of these crucial factors. Moreover, I don't think that it's hard to accept that, for example, his impatience was probably the result of his cultural make-up, genes, interactions with his family members, and other things. As you know, all of these were independent of your father's will. Thus, your father, and indeed every person, was born into a predetermined world, one in which most choices had already been made for him. Moreover, these initial determinations had an undeniable impact upon the rest of his life and decisions.

Imagine a circle in the center of a big picture. The circle is you, and the picture represents your life, or else all of the interactions that you make during your life. As mentioned above, even in the very beginning, that circle is not unique. Now imagine a few more circles which represent your family members and hometown, and draw a line from each circle to yourself. This is you in the beginning. Without a doubt, soon some circles will fade away and other circles will appear in a continuously regenerating network. Let this little human being live in this world (morph his network, as we say) for some years and, in the end, you'll obtain a dreadfully complex picture that is almost impossible to understand.

Nevertheless, let's consider for a moment the evolution of this self-network. At each decision point, we make a choice that is influenced by our personal self-network, defined as a collection of those choices over which we had no control and those which we made due to our personal network at that time. This recursive definition of self, which is entirely reasonable, makes it impossible for us to judge other people's behavior, for we can never know if such behavior is the result of free will or of the previous self-network. We find it easy to criticize students who drop out of school, or behave anti-socially, or sleep all day. But maybe they had no other option in the context of their self-network. If this is the case, criticizing them is almost like criticizing a fish because it cannot fly. It is quite possible that no alternative choices were within their reach.

The key observation lies in this: When we see a person do something that we don't like, we don't know and can never know how much his or her self-network has influenced that specific act. Therefore, my friend, who are we to judge other people's acts unless we have this kind of knowledge? Given this, if we want to be true to ourselves, what other alternative do we have but to exercise complete tolerance toward others?

Before going on, however, I should stress that I am talking about tolerance for acts that don't violate other people's rights and freedoms. In addition, I'm talking about personal tolerance only, for obviously everyone must follow the law for the sake of society. For example, a thief should be punished according to the law. Therefore, given that there are many underlying reasons for a person's act, we should hesitate before passing judgment, for it benefits both of us if we are tolerant. As shown above, this is not only a more pragmatic, but also a more rational approach.

The world's great religions and great minds have said such things many times. For example, we read in the Bible: Judge not, that ye be not judged (Matthew 7:1) and Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whoseoever thou art that judgest... (Romans 2:1). The great Hellenistic philosopher Epictetus says: If a man drinks much wine, do not say that he drinks badly, but that he drinks much. For till you have decided what judgment prompts him, how do you know that he acts badly? 1 Even more, another Biblical verse states: Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God. (I Corinthians 4:5). This verse supports tolerance, for it tells us that we should have comprehensive knowledge of a person before judging their acts. Such knowledge, as we all know, is possessed only by God.

An interesting result of considering individuals as nodes located in the center of a complex network occurs when we try to influence a person's views, acts, and beliefs. In order to appreciate how difficult (if not impossible) this is, imagine the self-network of the person you want to influence, with all of his or her beliefs, memories, friends, as well as all of the nodes acquired while morphing his or her self-network.

Now imagine the fraction of nodes in that self-network that are directly related to you. I don't think that you'll claim to be a big part of that person's life, unless both of you have been on intimate terms for quite a while. The proportion of the nodes that you represent in his or her self-network can be quite an accurate measure of how much influence you will have. For example, you can alter a lonely or a simple person's beliefs in a shorter time, since in a short time you can become a large proportion of his or her self-network.

By the way, you might be amazed to hear that the English mathematician Thomas Bayes (1702-61) tried to formulate quantitatively how a person's beliefs would change upon receiving new information that contradicts his or her previous beliefs. In a Bayesian analysis, a set of experiences (in our case, links) are seen as something that influences opinion and decision. I won't discuss this further, however, since it's beyond both my and this letter's scope.

In my opinion, the reason why we almost always criticize and blame others, and constantly see faults in everybody else is because we refuse to make an honest self-criticism; that is to consider our own responsibilities, not those of other people.

Forgive me for saying this, but you want to achieve a better quality of life now; this is something for which you have to work really hard. Yet, if your father had become a doctor, you probably would already be living this better life, and so you wouldn't have to push yourself. Hence, we can find a convenient scapegoat in your father, who, for whatever reason, didn't set you up with such a life!

Another example, one in the future, might be that a person explains his/her beliefs in the hope of influencing someone else. Unable to convince this person, he/she blames that person for not opening their heart and really listening. Easy, isn't it? However, remember that you can't really influence a person if you are not a large part of his or her life.

Do you see what's missing in this picture? Reality and, more than that, a solution. It lacks reality, for we can never hold someone absolutely responsible for anything. And why not? Because we have no way of knowing which actions were based upon free-will and which ones were the result of his or her prior self-network. By blaming others, regardless of whether we are correct in doing so or not, we not only contradict reality, we also ignore our own mistakes, closing the roads to a solution that could come from ourselves, and taking a passive position of stagnancy that, I think, won't make a better world for ourselves or anybody else.

Before ending, I'd like to apologize if some of my words sound harsh. However, I consider you a true friend who will appreciate my openness. Even if some of my words have upset you, perhaps you'll be patient with me. For this to be, before blaming me, stop for a moment and try to look at this situation from another perspective. Try to find some truth in my words, and try to be hard on yourself. Below are some extraordinarily beautiful lines from Nietzsche, which I think are appropriate to our discussion. He writes:

Why so hard? the kitchen coal once said to the diamond. After all, are we not close kin?

Why so soft? O my brothers, thus I ask you: are you not after all my brothers?

Why so soft, so pliant and yielding? Why is there so much denial, self-denial, in your hearts? So little destiny in your eyes?

And if you do not want to be the destined inexorable ones, how can you one day triumph with me?

And if your hardness does not wish to flash and cut through, how can you one day create with me?

For all creators are hard. And it must seem bliss to you to impress your hand on millennia as on wax, bliss to write on the will of millennia as on bronze harder than bronze, nobler than bronze. Only the noblest is altogether hard.

This new tablet, O my brothers, I place over you: become hard!2

Yes my friend, become hard, very hard on yourself; and soft, very soft towards others.


1 Epictetus, The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. P. E. Matheson (New York: Heritage Press, [1968]).

2 Friedrich W. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. Walter Kaufmann (USA: Viking Penguin, 1966), 214.