The Trouble With Tolerance

“When bigotry is the dominant view, it sounds like self-evident truth.”
-Harriet McBryde Johnson

Last Sunday someone mentioned something (which details escape me now) but in the dialog was one word that reverberated, rolling around my head noisily long after the event:  Tolerance.

Gee, it sounds like such a good thing, right?

Obviously it’s better than intolerance, where people are actively against nonconformity, even violently so.  Intolerance is all about bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, et cetera.  In contrast, tolerance means that the different, the Other, is allowed.  Those that are tolerated are to not be actively hurt, or discriminated against, or “converted” through sheer force or coercion into dire dilemmas of horrible-choice or even-worse-choice.

At best there is the decision that although there is not agreement as to the validity of someone else’s differences, the existence of that difference is still allowed.

The trouble with tolerance is that it can imply a bad thing that someone else is merely “putting up with”.

Mere tolerance can mean that the Other is actually wrong and unacceptable.  We all feel good because we’re being so modern and virtuous and civilised because we tolerate it.  Not like those other people in whatever-country, or those who practice whatever-religion.  We don’t tolerate intolerance.  Er, whatever.

This concept really bears consideration.  There’s an inherent conflict.

In truth, I don’t accept everything people believe or do.  I heave a big sigh with the American Civil Liberties Union ends up defending a Ku Klux Klan group the right to stage an event.  I hate the KKK’s ideals; it was very disturbing to find a recruitment flyer on my driveway with my morning newspaper some years ago.  There is no tolerance for any who harm others, especially children.  However, when considering things like free speech issues, I realise that I could just as easily be amongst a group that the mainstream does not want to tolerate, because I have been fatally Othered by some opinion or identifying trait I own.

And yet I still welcome acceptance of inborn differences amongst people, all those little quirks of genetics that determine our appearances and physical and mental abilities and neurologic tics and our loves.  I want to go even beyond that; I cherish the multitudes of differences, for these are what make us who we are, they are our strengths and blessings.  Diversity is just as important in the human gene pool as in any other part of ecosystems.

While teasing out this tangled mess, I find that at least for now, an essential kernel remains:

Appreciation for all kinds of people, and tolerance for the rights of different beliefs and opinions.