Diminishing tolerance in the Netherlands threat to liberal society

The Upper and Lower Houses of the Dutch Parliament are struggling with how tolerance should best be interpreted. As a result, the freedom in the Netherlands for people who hold alternative views is diminishing. This is Floris Mansvelt Beck’s conclusion on the basis of his PhD research. Defence on 2 December.

Respect for freedom of conscience seems to be declining

Floris Mansvelt Beck during a lunch debate in Rotterdam in 2014.

Floris Mansvelt Beck during a lunch debate in Rotterdam in 2014.

Mansvelt Beck carried out research on parliamentary notions of integration, freedom and tolerance in the Netherlands between 2000 and 2013. He concludes that tolerance of dissenters is declining and that this poses a threat for more than just religious minorities. The ability to subordinate one’s own rights in order to show respect for freedom of conscience seems to have been lost. And if the majority loses this ability, the majority itself then poses a threat for a liberal society.


The Act on Ritual Slaughter

As an example, in the case of integration, there seems to be tolerance of religion, but only on the conditions set by the majority. That means: free will and no overly alternative notions. In the controversial debate on the Act on Ritual Slaughter earlier this year, it proved inconceivable for a Christian minority to put freedom of conscience above animal welfare.

Clashing visions of freedom

Mansvelt Beck analysed parliamentary debates conducted between 2000 and 2003. These debates show a confrontation between two assumptions of liberal freedom. On the one hand parliament allows room for religious and cultural pluriformity and freedom of conscience, but on the other hand there is the assumption that Dutch people should be self-reliant, autonomous and emancipated. When these two visions clash, freedom of conscience is often the loser.

Freedom of conscience is the underdog

For a majority of the parties, freedom of conscience seems to be the underdog. They don’t need freedom of conscience to protect their own lifestyle, because this lifestyle is already shared by the majority. This can lead them to dismiss the wishes and arguments of religious groups as unfounded and unreasonable. Christian parties, such as the Christian Union and the SGP, that appeal to freedom of conscience carry hardly any weight. They come up against a majority, made up of people that are convinced of their own arguments and are not interested in those of other people.

No room for dissent

The dangers inherent in this development are not limited to religious minorities, in Mansvelt Beck’s opinion. The more self-evident the majority considers their own ideas, the more readily they overlook the arguments of all minorities, whether these are believers or anti-globalists. There is no longer any room for true dissenters.

How we do things here – Moral Communities, Integration, and Toleration in the Netherlands: Competing Interpretations of Liberalism in the Netherlands: 2000-2013, Floris Mansvelt Beck

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Last Modified: 01-12-2015