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The Limits of Tolerance

Smug Toronto Seethes as Tamils "Go Too Far"

by EUGENIA TSAO

The people of Toronto, Ontario, may recall last month’s ruckus as thousands of members of the Tamil Canadian community descended on the provincial legislative grounds and the Gardiner Expressway with placards, decrying the slaughter of their kin half a world away, snarling traffic and foiling the dinnertime ambitions of metropolitan commuters. Much newsprint has since been devoted to perplexed head-scratching at the demonstrators’ aims. Why had they abandoned the traditional initiatives of faxing polite letters to their Members of Parliament or circulating petitions? Were they so naïve as to imagine that they could successfully enlist the sympathies of ordinary Torontonians by obstructing the latter’s daily activities? Had they not realized that, by foisting such inconveniences upon their neighbours and coworkers, they were only hurting their cause?

“Tamil protests a test of our tolerance,” the Toronto Star pronounced, while the Globe and Mail chided the demonstrators for squandering public support with their disruptive tactics (“Tamils earn goodwill—then lose it,”  May 20). “Just who exactly is advising Toronto’s Tamils on their strategy for attracting support for their cause?” bristled a National Post reader. “If anything, they likely guaranteed the police and the public have less tolerance than ever for a community that seems to have no sense of Canadian values” (“Happy Mother’s Day from Toronto’s Tamils,” May 11). “At what point,” Star columnist Angelo Persichilli echoed two weeks later, “do words like compassion and tolerance become catalysts for chaos and anarchy?” (“New home or just a base to settle scores?,”  May 24).

“Ours, you see, is a tolerant society” Canadians smugly confide to visiting Americans. And while the line between tolerance and mere endurance is a slender one, few would deny Canadians’ infatuation with cultural diversity. We like to lunch on sushi and samosas, sport henna tattoos, practice yoga, wear paisley embroidery, listen to reggae, and hang feathered dreamcatchers from our rearview mirrors. We proudly subscribe to magazines like National Geographic for the exotic, high-contrast photography and romanticized verbal portraiture. We love falling asleep on the subway to a velvet medley of diasporic languages, and nothing delights us more than consuming enormous sandwiches filled with things like prosciutto and chorizo.

But we cannot eat acts of non-violent civil disobedience or wear political grievances, you see, and this confuses us.

*   *   *

Some years ago, as an undergraduate student, when I would occasionally spend the hours between classes studying in the Arts and Science administrative building. I witnessed an instructive incident. One afternoon, during Israeli Apartheid Week, I noticed some members of the campus Arab Students’ Collective erecting a large structure in the front lobby. As it took shape, it first assumed the form of a cardboard barrier, then a grey, corrugated wall complete with a watchtower made of spray-painted cardstock, duct tape, and aluminum foil. Observers convened around the exhibit: some were intrigued, others enraged, but all had taken notice, including employees at the adjacent Second Cup kiosk and a few hapless receptionists who emerged from their offices, eyebrows duly quirked.

A fewdays later, a curious letter appeared in one of the main campus newspapers. The author claimed with oily consternation that as far as he was concerned the event backfired. He had found it disruptive and was now much less inclined to care about the occupation. Why not simply organize a nice, quiet Palestinian cultural festival, he unctuously suggested, where Palestinian arts, crafts, costume and cuisine could be put on display, and their creators’ existential worth thus substantiated? Why had these protestors elected to present themselves as irate and unruly, rather than strategically charming and loveable? Know your audience, he urged patronizingly. More flies with honey than with vinegar.

Such admonitions are commonplace in the metropolitan North. In all things, the right of the imperial citizens to bask in orientalized spectacle must be upheld: their license to remain perennially out of earshot of any and all dissent as they literally and figuratively consume the East and the South. This prerogative has a long and distinguished historical pedigree; in the olden days, people were simply more direct about it. Scholar-mercenaries of the Victorian era would traverse the globe in sleek gunboats, rounding up riches and relics on behalf of private collectors and museums in Europe; colonial administrators would whisk dark-skinned children from their parents’ arms to be displayed on the streets of England, where petticoated ladies could examine them with magnifying lenses, marveling at the texture of their hair, the cadence of their mother tongues, the curlicues on their garments.

Today, we are more civilized. Rather than forcing the natives to dance for us at the crack of a whip, we expect them to do so voluntarily, citing our need for unending cultural enrichment and enlightenment, or their need to evince gratitude for our generous foreign policies. Rather than accusing them of high treason when they dare to publicize historical injustices in inconvenient—and unentertaining—ways, we cluck our tongues and accuse them of strategic imprudence. “Can’t you see you’re just alienating your audience?” we hiss, annoyed, mouths full of falafel and tandoori chicken. Heaven forefend that we, the beneficiaries of half a millennium of Western imperialism, might take a minute every now and then to hear out our subjects’ grievances.

Did the Tamil demonstrators commit a tactical error by disrupting the daily rhythms of their fellow Torontonians? Strategy is dictated by objective, and so, if we assume that their intention was to try to recruit heartfelt sympathies by blocking six lanes of traffic on a major highway, a reasonable answer to this question could be yes. But why would we assume that?

As a Tamil acquaintance told me in the days following the initial wave of demonstrations, “We’d been trying for eighteen months to get the media to improve their coverage of the deteriorating situation back home. We tried everything. They never paid any attention. Now they are. It’s fine that not everyone’s sympathetic; people are entitled to reach their own conclusions. But at least they’re starting to realize there’s a bloodbath going on. That’s all we wanted to achieve.”

EUGENIA TSAO spends her leisure time studying medical anthropology at the University of Toronto. She can be reached at tsao.eugenia@gmail.com.