Procrustes, also known as ‘the stretcher’, was a Greek
robber dwelling in Attica.
He had a residence on ‘the sacred way’ between Athens
and Eleusis. In his residence was an iron bed in which he invited every traveller
who passed by to spend the night. If the traveller was shorter than the bed, he
stretched him by hammering or racking the body to fit; and if he was longer
than the bed, he cut off the legs to make the body fit the bed’s length. In
either event, the victim died due to Procrustes intolerance for differences.
In recent weeks, our renditions of Procrustes have been
unveiled, and they range from heads of schools to the Judiciary. The first
unveiling began when a school presented a student who professes the Rastafarian
faith with a double bind, when they asked her to choose between shaving her
hair or leaving the school. After a
court ruling, the girl has since been readmitted.
The second was through an unrelated ruling that was
made by the Supreme Court that allowed a certain school to bar Muslim girl students from wearing hijab, which is a veil that covers their head and chest, citing that it was
against their uniform policy. The third was the rare inquietude displayed by the
Chief Justice during the conference on corruption, where he lamented about his
salacious depiction by bloggers. The common denominator in all the three is the
intolerance for differences. And like Procrustes, there is a desire from all
parties to want to stretch those who do not fit in their ‘bed’ or cut off their
legs if they are too long.
According to the Legatum Prosperity Index that ranks
countries according to how much personal freedom their citizens enjoy based on
criteria such as freedom of speech, religion and social tolerance, among other
variables, Kenya ranks 97th globally and seventh in sub-Saharan
Africa. Based on this data, we can conclusively say Kenya is fairly tolerant.
And this was buttressed by President Uhuru Kenyatta as he sought to advice the
Chief Justice to accept and move on with the unwarranted insults from bloggers,
as everyone else has.
However, as Karl Popper, the Austrian-British professor
and one of the most influential philosophers of science stated in his book, The Open Societies and Its Enemies, that
unlimited tolerance leads to the disappearance of tolerance. He went on to say
that if we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we
are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the
intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.
To deconstruct Popper’s thinking means that if we
demand unlimited tolerance, then we need to be ready to tolerate the most awful
ideas and acts that occur within our society. When we are asked to tolerate
something that is at the expense of someone else’s existence or well-being,
tolerating such ideas and acts is a tacit endorsement by ourselves, and we
should therefore not complain about them.
Begs the question, is it possible to have too much
tolerance? And does tolerance involve being tolerant of the intolerant? Hence,
as the paradox of tolerance then states, doesn’t this lead to the disappearance
of tolerance altogether? Yet intolerance can only beget conflict.
Tolerance means accepting our differences and allowing
others to engage in behaviour or speech that we might dislike, disapprove of,
or not believe in, as long as that behaviour or speech does not cause harm to
ourselves or others in society. However, such tolerance ought not compel us to
associate with people we differ with, only that we leave them in peace.
Let us take the case of the Rastafarian father. He
based his legal argument on his freedom of religion as protected by our Constitution.
And the State unable to contradict itself and coerce its citizens on religious
beliefs, refrains from interfering in the religious beliefs of its citizens.
Resultantly, the court found in favour of the student due to her inalienable
right to the free exercise of religion that necessitates toleration of all
But should the dad have been tolerant of the intolerant
school rules against Rastafarians?
The same case obtains regarding the hijab ruling. In
response, National Assembly Majority leader Aden Duale urged all Muslims to
ignore the Supreme Court ruling, saying the Constitution protects their right
to wear the hijab and that the court cannot take that away. While this is not in
question, was he being intolerant of the ruling of the highest court in the
In both scenarios, to safeguard the sanctity of
tolerance, shouldn’t the Rastafarian dad and Duale have been tolerant of the
intolerant positions taken by the learning institutions? Shouldn’t they have
respected the school’s right not to associate with those that choose not to
conform to its uniform code, and seek those learning institutions that
embrace their religious dress code?
I submit that tolerance does not mandate association.
And to mandate association is to invite a forceful backing of intolerance
through dissension, disputes, conflict and war; while it would have been easier
to have a peaceful refusal to associate. Granted, nobody enjoys the sting of
rejection or feeling discriminated against, especially those that offend deeply
held religious beliefs. But a society that cannot tolerate differing views and
respect the live-and-let-live principle that gives them the freedom to
associate as they wish, and equally decline to do so, will not be free for too
Finally, my unsolicited advice is to the Chief Justice;
the aim of any social media netizen is to be successful at hyperbolic
clickbait. Therefore, to pronounce a cease and desist order on your lewd
depictions, is like asking water not to be wet. So, to echo President Kenyatta’s
counsel, kubali yaishe.
“Religion is like a pair of shoes; find one
that fits you, but don’t make me wear your shoes.”
― George Carlin