On Tolerance

by Brian 16. June 2013 03:48

I find my tolerance waning over the misuse of the very word itself in contemporary discourse. Tolerance used to be a virtuous quality. Yet to be associated with the modern attribute is not particularly impressive. In this post I will attempt to to restore tolerance to its good and proper meaning. As long as the distortion continues, productive dialog will have to deal with this unnecessary barrier.

From etymology we find the word tolerance has its origin in the Latin tolerantia for endurance and forbearance. In the context of discourse where there are conflicting views, endurance and forbearance are often essential to a productive outcome. One does not need to forbear if they are simply going to hate and ridicule their opposition. In the original and virtuous sense of the word, tolerance was about how one behaved and held up under confrontation. One was tolerant if he or she was able to engage someone with a conflicting position, even one contrary to their deeply held belief, and do so with gentleness and patience. Likewise, intolerance was the complete lack of endurance or forbearance when confronted with any creed, belief, or opinion that differed from their own.

Given the traditional meaning, tolerance is a quality we ought to have.  Unfortunately today the word often means something very different. Merriam-Webster says tolerance is: sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own. In addition to being sympathetic or indulgent today: One is tolerant if he or she is accepting of opposing views, where accepting implies holding your view in such a way that you permit without restriction the practices associated with any contrary view. Someone is intolerant in a moral disagreement if their position in any way restricts the practices of the one holding the opposing view.[i] 

Of course the restriction-caveat is silly. Take Valerie the vegan. She has a strong moral conviction concerning the slaughter of cattle. To her, it is morally wrong to kill animals for food. She is doing what she can to prevent it. She is using every social and political means at her disposal to prohibit the consumption of beef in the US. Then there is Marty the meat eater. He has a contrary view to Valerie and feels strongly he should have the right to eat beef. Yet Valerie is telling Marty his actions are morally wrong. She votes yes on Prop-7: The Protection of Cattle Act. This law would prohibit Marty from doing what he wants to do – that is, eat beef. The law is restrictive. Valerie’s view, according to Marty, is restrictive. So here’s the question: Is Valerie being an intolerant bigot here? Of course not! Merely because one’s view is more restrictive of social practices than the opposition, it does not follow the holder of said view is intolerant. You and I might disagree with Valerie; we might find her animal-rights presuppositions false, that they are based on bad information or ignorance. But Valerie sincerely believes her presuppositions and the views that logically follow from them. How can we charge her with some kind of hate-based character flaw merely on these grounds? Honestly and rationally we cannot.

So how do we demarcate tolerance from intolerance? When you present your view thoughtfully and carefully and opponents respond with hate and name calling; their response is intolerance. When you persevere with gentleness and respect against opposing views, then you are showing tolerance. When you hold up under intolerant opposition, you are displaying something even greater than tolerance - meekness. When you blindly accept, celebrate or indulge all views and behaviors, you are not tolerant using any virtuous meaning of the word. How ironic it is to find those who carelessly throw the word intolerance around are often the same ones who lack the endurance and forbearance to consider the beliefs and opinions of others.


[i] I am ignoring the epistemological relativists out there as they are far too unreachable on this topic anyway. If everyone has a private-truth on every issue, then even the charge of intolerance is just an opinion without any objective substance. This post is meant to reach the majority of sensible folks who hold some notion of a correspondence theory of truth. I am also leaving out the unfortunate fact mere restraint from restricting behavior is often not enough to prevent being labeled intolerant. There are those who expect you to celebrate the diversity of views and the practices that follow – or keep quiet.  


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About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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