Tolerance in the Netherlands

A Dutch tradition

Today the Netherlands is known as one of the most permissive societies in the Western world.

Yet the Dutch brand of permissiveness, which is readily associated with the acceptance of homosexuality, women’s rights, abortion, same-sex marriage and the liberalization of soft drugs and euthanasia, originated from the cultural protests of the 1960s and 1970s that would dramatically transform the Dutch landscape.

As a result of that social revolution, many Dutch citizens consider permissiveness and tolerance as essential parts of their self-image and identity, even to the extent of creating a historical lineage that goes back to the early days of the nation.

The seventeenth century, the Dutch Golden Age, is seen to supply a great deal of corroborative evidence for this belief. At that time, the Dutch Republic was the only country in which freedom of conscience was enshrined in the law, resulting in the influx of refugees of all possible religious backgrounds.
Moreover, the Republic was the established Eldorado for authors and journalists who found the opportunity here to publish works that would elsewhere be put on the index of forbidden books immediately.

However, contrary to accepted wisdom, a continuous tradition of tolerance in the Netherlands is impossible to establish. True, the Netherlands experienced remarkable phases of tolerance in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as well as in the last decades of the twentieth century. Yet, these periods were exceptions rather than the rule and they resulted from very specific sets of circumstances. Moreover, both phases can hardly be characterized by hard-principled tolerance. Upon closer examination of that tradition, the Dutch practice of tolerance derived from a culture of lenient permissiveness and was rarely principled in character.

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