On Tolerance

I like to describe myself as a tolerant person. Not tolerant in terms of being patient with incompetence or having a high pain threshold, I tolerate difference. I have no problem with people thinking differently, looking differently or acting differently to the way I would (or at least the way I’d like to think I would). I think that tolerance of the differences between people is a fundamental part of any modern, humane society. I think many of the world’s problems could be solved if the starting point was tolerance and the next step was discussion. I’d like others to be tolerant of me in the same way that I am tolerant of them. Many are not.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves” – Bertrand Russell

It is not just religion that breeds intolerance and bigotry (although that is the largest driving force behind it in the modern world), uninformed ideology can also contribute, although many of the features of religion are present in fascism and communism and some would describe them as secular religions. There is an underlying force behind all of this, when people become divided on any grounds and the two sides become somehow ‘other’, it becomes all to easy for those in authority driving the divide to dehumanize the two sides, separating them still further. Humans are tribal by nature and putting people into boxes which suffice to summarise their entire character without any direct contact happens without any conscious effort. There are clear evolutionary benefits from this tribalism, being more wary of people who have less genetically in common with you is an obvious way of keeping you (and your close family) safe. People from other tribes who are not related to you will ‘look after their own’ first and if this means an action that is detrimental to your safety, so be it. Altruism towards people who you have less genetically in common with at the expense of those with whom you share more genetic material doesn’t work in evolutionary terms. It seems perfectly natural that when people are separated into groups, the feelings or needs of the group to which you belong become more important than those of another.

The easiest and I think most obvious way of combating the inherent tribalism within all of us is to cut it off at its source. The only reason people are ever seen as different or ‘other’ is because they are (but only in a geographic or social sense). Separating people of difference without encouraging a full and all-encompassing mixing (to avoid dilution and assimilation) is the theory behind multiculturalism, it doesn’t work and only serves to strengthen the feelings of difference. It has been tried in almost all major cities in Western Europe and many others around the world. When people are allowed to mix naturally without the fear of their own culture being in any way harmed or lessened by pressure from outside, the ignorance that exists between separate groups evaporates and the clear common ground that exists between all people regardless of race, culture or religion becomes apparent.

What exactly do we mean by tolerance? To some it may mean voting for a candidate who believes that homosexuality should not be illegal, to others it means smiling through gritted teeth while your son brings home his first boyfriend, while to others it means being the proud parent at your son’s gay wedding. Personally, to me tolerance means treating people in an equal way whatever difference they may have from you (or each other) to the point of ignoring the difference, not even noticing it. A person’s choice (or inherited genetic tendency) of lifestyle, should not be judged by the way it affects them but by the way it directly affects those around them, not in a ‘I don’t approve’ way but in a ‘their children aren’t safe’ or a ‘driving like that is dangerous’ way. Not doing what you would do in a given situation is not grounds for persecution, doing something that has negative affects on other people is. Maybe ‘acceptance’ is a better word to use but tolerance is the word in common usage on the subject so I’ll continue with that.

What are the limits of tolerance? Should I tolerate unlawful behaviour? Unethical practise? Cruelty?

No, these are not things I think anyone should tolerate. They all have a clear victim, all freedoms of action have a boundary around which stand the other members of society who could be affected by those actions. Granted there are many examples of ‘victimless crimes’ such as drug use but I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘legalise drugs’ issue. Suffice to say that in this piece I mean crimes that have a clear victim (I would include children of substance abusers in this category). Poor ethics are not constricted to the corporate world, we all know examples of religious leaders driving expensive cars and wearing designer suits, while the charities and causes they claim to support struggle with lack of funds (or no funding at all if they dare to break one of the requirements set down by the church). There are many examples of cruelty that are only permissible in law due to dietary restrictions, or bodily requirements placed on the religious. These actions are still cruel, whoever or whatever orders you to do them. Tolerance does not extend to allowing actions against an unwilling victim (I include all children in this) or to slaughter any animal in a way that causes any more than the bare minimum of suffering and for any reason other than necessary pest removal or food.

These are so far examples of toleration with regards to behaviour, what about tolerating intolerant thoughts and views?

Many people may disagree with me on this but I cannot allow the suppression of intolerant views to be more important than the freedom to express them. I do not believe that they are (or can ever be) correct or valid but for tolerance to be truly tolerant it must cover all members of society not just those who I agree with. It is only through frank and open discussion that the enemies of tolerance and freedom can be engaged, silencing one’s critics without exposition is a surefire way to encourage them, ensuring their continuance. Deconstructing and refuting their arguments in front of those they are attempting to convert in the most public forum possible is the only way to show people the falsity of their claims. The irony of the religious fanatic standing on a street corner screaming about the evils of free speech is not lost on me but it almost certainly is on him or her. However, tolerance of this sort is not really comparable to the tolerance spoken of above, if a person has views you do not agree with it is not only your right but also your duty (time and place allowing) to challenge them, point out any errors, inconsistencies and errors before expressing your own opinions and backing them up with the reasons you hold them and any evidence to support your claim. Just shouting ‘Shut Up You Nutter!’ before walking off without giving them the option of reply won’t convince anyone of anything other than your own intolerance and inability to accept criticism.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire

We all live here, in this now global society, it is no longer enough to peer through the once murky camera lens of a far away country, wondering how people could treat each other like that. Metaphorically walking by when one witnesses harassment, bullying or victimisation of any member of society be they part of a vulnerable minority or just unlucky enough to be surrounded by ignorant idiots is not an option anymore. It is only by standing up and confronting the peddlers of hate head on that we can start to build a world we would be proud for our children and grandchildren to live in.

We are not just members of society, we are society.

Thanks for reading



8 Responses to On Tolerance

  1. Amanda S. Moores says:

    I like to describe myself as an “accepting” person. I’m sure it’s nothing more than a matter of semantics, but tolerance suggests to me merely putting up with “other” rather than embracing it. But I totally get what you’re saying and agree with you. It’s not enough to stand back and think “if only”. The “if only”s will only ever come to pass if we create them. It’s more than calling ourselves tolerant or accepting — it’s living that way and teaching our children tolerance and acceptance so they will live that way.

  2. I, as you, prefer acceptance over tolerance. Accept somebody who is different, or thinks differently, as an equal member of society. Discussion and confrontation of ideas, out in the open leads to progress in society, being silent or passive does not.

  3. I agree that acceptance would have been a much better word to decsribe how I feel, I used tolerance because I wanted to include all of those whose views I abhore under the same umbrella term. I cannot say that I accept the views of extremist politics or religion but I do tolerate both their existence and the rights of people to hold them. Only by extending the same rights to them as I claim for everyone else can I be justified in open criticism of their arguments.

    • Amanda S. Moores says:

      Well said. And with that in mind, tolerance is definitely a good fit. I especially like your inclusion of limitations. It’s imperative that there is a line between acceptance/tolerance of other thoughts/practices and behavior that is simply inexcusable.

  4. You should read up (if you haven’t already) on J.S. Mill in relation to tolerance – arguments lie the Value of Autonomy and Diversity and Experiments in Living. He’s very good. And very lovely. ❤
    Oh, and your bit on tolerating the intolerant: I know that being intolerant of the intolerant because of their lack of tolerance is, obviously, hypocritical and silly, and I agree that rational debate with intolerant individuals is a far better approach. However, if people should refuse to engage in rational debate and are continuously forcing their views in support of intolerance on others then things could get dangerous; if these views spread enough, they could come to threaten the tolerant principles of a liberal society. If we're ever faced with this sort of situation, I think that out of the two options – temporary intolerance and hypocrisy in order to ultimately preserve the value of tolerance and society's liberalism Vs complete tolerance in order to avoid hypocrisy allowing the overthrow of tolerance itself by the intolerant and irrational – I would definitely advocate the former.
    Of course it's an extreme example, but it's possible. I think another limit of tolerance should be drawn here.

    • Arguments *like

      • Clearly anyone inciting any kind of violence or unlawful behaviour should have their right to free speech curtailed if it is likely to encourage what we want to prevent.

        I don’t tolerate intolerance becasue I want to avoid hypocrisy, I believe that confronting views you disagree with is the best way of deconstructing them. If a person preaches hate within a church but refuses to enter debate, film them, get them on TV and have commentators going through the arguments afterwards to show how misguided they are. The way to deal with these people is to educate their target audience, not to merely silence them in public becasue you can never control what people say to each other within households or between friends.

        However, I could understand a ‘state of emergency’ situaton when certain measures may be necessary but things would have to get very extreme. Hypocrisy is certainly a lesser evil than fundamental theocracy.

  5. B.J.Simons says:

    I think you’d like the short story “In the Penal Colony” by Kafka, if you have not already read it. I have a link to it here: http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/kafka/inthepenalcolony.htm

    My philosophy professor assigned our class that reading while discussing moral relativism, concentrating on tolerance.

    I also appreciated greatly the Bertrand Russell quote. I suppose my appreciation runs hand-in-hand with my attendance at a university that proudly boasts the motto “Challenge Convention and Change Our World.”

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