The Limit of Tolerance

I attended the marriage of two teachers at my former school over the break. Hymns were sung, readings were taken from Bible and from poems, prayers were offered for the hope of love in our weary world. As they were two men this was a “blessing,” not a sacrament; under British law, this was a “civil partnership” and not a wedding. The Church of England, in internecine spasm over sexuality, deployed an observer to ensure the priest stayed within orthodoxy, some abject person having complained to the bishop about the use of the church building. Despite this, in every real way, two people in love were married on New Year’s Eve. Neither earth, nor rock, nor curtain split. It seemed a moment of grace so self-evident you’d dream it would melt the hardest, most hateful hearts.

As this event created a new family, it trawled the collective memory of my own, resurrecting talk of a relative I had not known before. Roy was my grandfather’s uncle. Roy was young in England’s interwar years, lodged in reminiscence as sunlight-dappled, faintly melancholic idyll, full of misplaced hope and constrained grief. There are albums, apparently, of photographs—Brideshead boys in sepia. Roy was young, which was easy, and homosexual, which was not; and as he aged away from the former the harder the latter became. In darker, post-war years, with no expectation of permanence, no possibility of intimacy beneath the jackboot of criminality, Roy killed himself. Not because of what he was, but because of what a stunted society made it mean. Sixty years later, the trauma fades to an old woman’s sigh. “Poor Roy could never be himself,” my grandmother says.

My teachers held their reception in the grandest room of my grand high school, panelled with the names of alumni fallen in the world wars. “They were young”, the inscriptions say. At that intersection of past and future, hope and loss, I think of Roy. He came of lesser background, but I struggle to separate my paltry notion of him from the handsome innocents, fresh from dormitory and playing field, sent to Somme and Spitfire to die. Many of them, those who wrote and poetized at least, were men like Roy: Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, others on that wall no doubt, lost to time and concealment. They thought of Achilles, Nisus, and Hyacinthus; they fell for Britain and its flowered fields, for its empire they would never see and its freedoms they did not know.

Surrounded by their names, I wondered what they would think of the wedding. I had cared about marriage equality and discrimination, intellectually and personally, as so many of us do, but never before with a sense of righteousness. That is a word we often surrender to our opponents, along with words like truth and zeal. Instead, we couch our struggles in fairness and equality; fine, relativistic, non-objectionable phrases. We do not talk of morality, because there is no debate in morality.  There is no room for the necessary and active process of changing minds. We respect that which should not be respected. Though they call us wicked, we do not call them the same, even when they sermonize their children to suicide or sponsor executions in Africa. We respond, when they claim the marginalization of their opinions and loss of their societal monopoly is “intolerance,” as if they had knowledge of the word. We go on, though we are tired. We speak, though they will not listen.

With Roy though, I find the limit of tolerance. At a point, we must stand up for those who kneeled. All minorities carry with them the burdens of their past: scars of survival, guilt of possibility, difficulty in integrating their todays, tomorrows, and yesterdays. The Germans, in their compound way, call it “vergangenheitsbewältigung”—the struggle to come to terms with the past. Just as time is illusory, so the past is always with us, even if it cannot speak. In liminal moments, it is one with the present. Like my grandfather’s uncle, it finds us out, whether we seek it or not.

As we enter this new year full of potential advances, those of us who care about justice and equality should recommit ourselves to the cause with the knowledge that Dr. Martin Luther King’s universal arc is with us, that the past will be healed and the future made brighter. When you encounter genuine ignorance, misapprehension, and misconception, work to correct it, not because you should have to but because you can. When you encounter hatefulness, wrapped in pseudo-religion or pseudo-intellectualism, with “purity” on its lips and barbed wire in its eyes, expose it for what it is. This is our moral necessity. Under the light of history’s truth, it will fade away. It deserves to die, as much as Roy did not.

Felix L. J. Cook ’13 is a joint government and literature concentrator in Quincy House.

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