Avoiding fits of intolerance

The debate over Ikea's link with outspoken pastor Lawrence Khong represents in some respects a storm in a teacup. The content of the magic show is not in question; Ikea has said it respected diversity in the community (indeed, it has every commercial reason to do so); and entertainers are entitled to their own opinions.

What touched a raw nerve was Mr Khong's strong views on homosexuality, which prompted one camp to urge Ikea to withdraw its support to avoid controversy, and another camp to decry efforts to impose ideological conformity.

If one burrows deeper, arguments can be traced to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community's claim for mainstream legitimacy, opposition to this based on various beliefs, and rejection of such opposition on the grounds of inclusivity. The countervailing claims in the name of tolerance and cross-accusations of intolerance might all seem like an exercise in point scoring.

On a wider plane, are those who condemn being intolerant of others, and those who take offence being intolerant of criticism and ridicule? Extending this semantic argument, tolerance would then amount to acceptance of a free-for-all milieu with nothing to constrain personal views.

The Charlie Hebdo saga, like the publication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, invoked questions on the extent to which society as a whole should be tolerant of views that might prove to be inflammatory. Setting limits can cut both ways in countering extreme views and also impinging on rights generally upheld in open and pluralistic societies. How nations frame parameters of tolerance tends to hinge on the harm to be curbed.

Across a spectrum, issues involving religion and ethnicity are, of course, far more volatile than, say, gender and lifestyle choices. For example, in post-9/11 United States, security concerns led to the profiling of activists, academics and artists based on views that were often quite unrelated to any support of terrorism. The effect of contention over moral and cultural issues might be less acute. Still, it should not be ignored when there is a potential risk of social isolation - for example, when a person's or organisation's outlook is tied to ordinary interactions whether of a commercial nature or otherwise. Firms like Ikea and DBS Bank (which once found it necessary to review its support of a right-leaning organisation) and service providers like Mr Khong must mould their public image as they see fit. And people are free to make consumer choices based on their own tastes and needs. What would be irksome is if ideology creeps into this everyday calculus, prompting outbursts that speak of intolerance rather than social empathy which is the mark of a truly multicultural society.