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.


  1. 21 January 2008 at 20:15

    […] discussed the Trouble With Tolerance before, and also the general lack of diversity in university […]

  2. ColinB said,

    19 October 2006 at 5:10

    In engineering, tolerance can be taken to mean, what sees an element able to dynamically function in some whole.
    Something too tightly confined by contiguous elements, may not do what it needs to do. Something beyond certain limits on variation, may interfere with other elements doing what they have to do.
    Below and beyond a local reflection on individual elements, and on what bears them in the locale: is the possibility of perspective on the thing as a whole; and that bears back on what tolerance is useful. Is the whole a cement mixer, or a clock, watch or computer: or is it a building operation; or a bio-engineering operation. Tolerance will be different in each instance.

    Then there are wider perspectives on wholes: perspectives which stem from the society and civilisation in which the whole thing is embedded; and these in turn embedded in what passes for comprehension.
    What if we move from the Newtonian physics paradigm, to the Einsteinian physics paradigm: then we can do what stems from controlling atomic fission and fusion; and we can pilot vehicles around the universe, with all that follows for knowledge.
    There we can, through an engineering that would once have produced grounded vehicles such as trains, produce things which can take us collectively into another era, of both artefact and understanding.
    Tolerance changes as we make such movements: because the whole, the context of wholeness, has itself changed.
    We can alter the human way of life itself, and that plane of wholeness is critical to what tolerance effectively is. What we have as tolerance today, is comprehensively different from that of the 1950’s, and that again differs from the tolerance of preceding centuries

    Beyond this are infinitely complex and subtle aspects to tolerance.
    People, like Ghandi Jesus and Einstein, who have fundamentally altered human possibility itself, seem to have exhibited and exercised extraordinary tolerance.
    To where we might say their tolerance was inseparable from a general loving they advocated.

    Hitler, on the other hand, appeared intolerant, to anything other than a fanaticism conjoined with his own: and the whole he helped engineer proved unable to survive; and the wider comprehension that whole reflected, saw its stock fall dramatically.

    Tolerance has something to do with how this and that articulates, with what is locally and dynamically contiguous, and with various horizons on a wider wholeness.
    The crux with tolerance, seems to always have to do with this plane of wholeness. A particular dispensation to do with tolerance, finds its rationale in the whole that exists or is intended.

  3. Jannalou said,

    20 September 2006 at 22:39

    I dislike the word “tolerance” because it implies that one is “putting up with” something that is essentially distasteful.

    “Acceptance”, on the other hand, has none of the “put up with” overtones and is all about allowance and enjoyment.

    I tolerate strong perfumes.

    I accept people.

  4. 20 September 2006 at 19:23

    “Tolerance” is a problematical word because it has so many alternative definitions. It can mean enduring pain or environmental insults, or putting up with something unpleasant. In the civil rights context, it often seems to mean willingness to endure whatever discomfort may result from being around different kinds of people or opinions. The word also means a permissible range of variation, such as in the manufacturing process.

    I generally prefer “acceptance.”

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