On the meaning of the word “Tolerance.”

Go read Tolerance Has Never Come Naturally – Washington Post.com (Free registration required). It’s easily one of the best essays I’ve read on the concept of tolerance, a popular word that is often used by people who understand it the least, and what it means to be tolerant (or the opposite, intolerant). The article touches briefly on everything from acitivist judges to the current debate over gay marriage.

Progressive individuals and progressive societies are not those that wait for some elusive golden age in which prejudice and fear magically dissolve before embracing change. Rather they are those who, though bedeviled by uncertainty and distrust, act out of fundamental convictions of fairness and justice, and the confidence that their misgivings will, in time, dissolve with familiarity. Tolerance acts first, in the knowledge that actions change attitudes, not the reverse. More than a century and a half ago, the English essayist William Hazlitt, in a work entitled “On the Pleasure of Hating,” noted that “We learn to curb our will and keep our overt actions within the bounds of humanity, long before we can subdue our sentiments and imaginations to the same mild tone. We give up the external demonstration, the brute violence, but cannot part with the essence or principle of hostility.”

The path of progress is pocked with the heel marks of the reluctant. There have always been those who say, “We’re not yet ready.” Either they underestimate the power of adaptability or they fear its power to expose the fallacy of their objections. A year ago, gay civil unions were highly controversial. Today many Americans view civil union as the moderate position. The ability to withstand differences increases with exposure to them. (That is another meaning of “tolerance,” the body’s ability to adapt to and withstand increasing doses of a foreign substance.)

Legal remedies coerce the hands but not the heart. Some may never wish to break bread with those whose conduct, though lawful, they find loathsome, whose beliefs they find heretical, whose message they think traitorous. And yet they are called upon to suffer them because that is who we are as a nation—not a people bereft of private values but a people enriched by a stubborn willingness to endure each other. “Toleration is not merely a generous byproduct of the American system: it is its essential principle, ” wrote Walter Lippmann.

Good stuff well worth the registration to read it. There’s more than a few people on both sides of the debate here on SEB that could do with checking it out and considering what it says.

20 thoughts on “On the meaning of the word “Tolerance.”

  1. Only with time does the alien become the immigrant, the stranger the neighbor, the outsider the newcomer.

    Although I agree with this quote. I must disagree with the basis of the article. Desensitizing is not tolerating. And that is what this author equivocates it to. If we follow the logic of this advice, like the frog that does not realize it is now boiling we all perish.

    Tolerance, does not need to lead to acceptance. We can pick a moral ground, and stay the course with it. We can be tolerant within certain bounds to remain a society. Indeed, our differences require it. But that does not mean that we must eventually accept as true that which we know to be false. Would you argue that the majority is always right?


  2. David just made a brilliant argument in favor of pushing the tolerance envelope. What he seems to be saying in a roundabout way is that he’s tolerant of everything he accepts and if he doesn’t accept it, take an aspirin and check back much later. Oh, and please refrain from using the courts as an arbiter, because what’s the use if he doesn’t agree.

  3. *sigh* No, in fact, I think that’s exactly how most of you behave. I think what I wrote was more along the lines that I have my own view of how things ought to be (i.e. same sex “marriage” is wrong). I don’t expect everyone (or even anyone) to agree with it or live by it. But there is a limit to how far outside that realm I’m willing to tolerate (If you want to have one go ahead, just don’t expect my support, and you MUST follow some line of consitant logic on your way there).

    And yes, the courts should only interpret the law, not create it. Notice: should.

    Or does the majority make right by you, elwedriddsche?

  4. David, I don’t think anyone cares whether you’re HAPPY with same-sex marriage or ACCEPT it as long as you tolerate it.  And to be honest, not too many people will wait around for you to decide to tolerate it on your own.  If we waited around for people to tolerate equal rights for African-Americans, we’d be waiting until everyone turned the same toasty brown.

    Sometimes the courts DO have to shove tolerance down the throats of those who would vote against the principles of equality that our country putatively stands for.

  5. Interesting. I agree that the courts should enforce equity. And that’s the argument I’ve been using on the marriage thread. Obviously, we disagree on what that means exactly, and I have no problem having that debate. The reason I stopped posting over there is that no one was willing to have THAT debate. Everyone keeps trying to bring a bunch of presumptive nonsense in. I grew bored of defending myself from attack after personal attack on my faith, when I wasn’t even the one that brought it up. You all assumed I felt a certain way because you know I believe a certain way.

    I don’t agree that we all need to be toasty brown to tolerate other races. See my post up this thread. I tolerate, even actively supported, a man of another race in the presidential primary. Bush is far from my first choice, yet because I’m conservative christian, I’ve been accused of being a loyal Bush follower too. Teaching races to get along is not all that difficult. But it does take time.  Forcing behavior on people is counter-productive to getting the desired behavior. I can tell how happy you all are about prayer in schools, makes you want to run out and join a church, doesn’t it?

  6. I think there is a big difference between prayers in schools (forcing people to act a certain way that is favourable to a particular group) and anti-discriminatory legislation (forcing people to STOP acting in a way that is unfavourable to a particular group).  Of course you need to legislate against discrimination, you can’t just wait til everyone agrees to play nice.

  7. geek mom,,,

    is in your opinion the homosexual thing and the race thing really about the same thing???

    If we waited around for people to tolerate equal rights for African-Americans, we

  8. David,

    You are confusing the words tolerance and tolerate.

    Tolerate: a: to suffer to be or to be done without prohibition, hindrance, or contradiction b: to put up with

    Tolerance: a: sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own b: the act of allowing something

  9. valhala, Read the article at the linked at the top. I was using the author’s “definition”.

    DaveR, Behavior modification is behavior modification. It doesn’t matter what your reason for doing it is. From my point of view, I could reverse your argument, and it doesn’t look any better that way.

  10. if you think it is, i am not telling you what you feel or think is wrong, but i do want to ask you do you see what that will do for christians and the church??

    I do not speak for GeekMom, but my take on such an action is that it will split the Christians into two camps: one that will accept but not embrace it and a second that will continue to espouse intolerance and incite violence. Do you suppose that there were no Christian supporters of slavery before African Americans gained their civil rights? Some were for hanging and some were for abolition, same as today (except today it is marriage rights, not slavery).

  11. Randall,

    Speaking as someone who was informed by a Christian classmate that there were TWO separate heavens—one for whites and one for blacks—I do see it as the same thing.  (No, I am not making this up.)

    Yes, I do understand that people who see homosexuality as a sin will be upset at seeing those relationships honored equally by the state.  But I still don’t think it’s a good enough reason to deny loving, committed couples of consenting age the same rights that other people have, in a country that is NOT supposed to be run by the rules of any religion, no matter how predominant it might be in the population.

  12. i do not doubt that you were told by a christian about the two separate heavens.  there is a well know religion that actually used to teach that blacks were cursed and could not even go to heaven.

    i also understand the thing about violence with homosexuals and also with abortionist.  it is not right though.

    i personally do not believe that a homosexual should be treated differently from a liar, adulterer, etc.  but they are.  i have a freind that is homosexual has aids and is not doing well.  he often shares with me his struggles with life and family as a result of those things.

    he comes to my church often, knows where i stand, i know where he stands and there is no condemnation either way.

    he understands i love him, but i dont agree with his lifestyle.  its not different than if he were cheating on his wife.

    its not at all upsetting to me that the government would approve of same-sex marriages but what potential it might have on the church in our nation.

    it will produce a challenge to the Christian faith to say what is right and wrong, especially since there are “ministers” performing same-sex marriages.  there is no way around putting a chrisian that believes scripture at odds with someone that wants to say that homosexuality and same-sex marriage is ok.

  13. I typed a nice long reply, but it was longer than the origional post, so I decided to post it on my blog and just let you guys know.

  14. Randall, I’m not certain I fully understand your last post… Are you saying that homosexuality is a decision one makes and as such is the moral equivalent of adultery, lying, etc? And what do you mean by “understanding” the violence? Personally, my relationships are wholly unaffected by the relationships of others. It’s my responsibility to give them worth. Divorce and Britney Spears are a far greater threat.

  15. Most problems in this world come from making judgements about other lives.  If I have found any truth or beauty in this very hard life it is that it is difficult to find happiness. If there are limits that may have to do with hurting others or intrusions of some kind

  16. Actually there is a current “Christian” religion that believes in a separate heaven for blacks and whites. I consider them a cult for other reasons, but it always amuses me when a black Jehovah

  17. How can the same people that told me in several previous threads that we cannot legislate morality be for laws that force tolerance?

    I suppose because I/we/they don’t give a flying rat’s ass WHAT you think about it, or whether you “tolerate it in your heart”. The laws don’t force tolerance. They enforce fairness, which some narrow minded prick is SURE to be “intolerant” of. As long as they can get married, and hopefully avoid personal contact with the likes of you, everybody’s happy. And no one will care if you sit in your basement sweating bullets and wringing your hands over the homosexuals next door. As long as you stay out of the way (“do not infringe on the rights or liberties of others”), you can work yourself into whatever personal tizzy you like.

    You seem to still be under the delusion that society needs wide approval (or YOUR approval) for everything it allows. This is a case of the majority being overruled by the clear rights of a minority…which our constitution so lovingly protects.

    Legislating morality is another ball of wax. That tells people they CAN’T do something, to keep them in line with someone’s view of how people ought to behave themselves. I’m talking about victimless crimes here. Those are generally morality laws, and IMO, should be abolished. No victim, no crime.

  18. Nice rationalization.

    I’m sorry that you faggot liberals are afraid to come out of your houses and hold hands without the US army protecting your skinny AIDS infected butts. I’m just characterizing you in the same way you did me. No facts, just blind prejudice. See, society gets along a lot better without that kind of crap.

    Now to your argument: I do care what you think, and you care what I think, or we wouldn’t even be here reading each other

  19. ‘Majoritarianism’
    The conflict with any democracy or majority rule, the idea of “Approval” must be balanced with the basic rights and protection of the minority.

    Hearts and Mind
    Of course it is nice to win the support of the population but the courts are not engaged in a popularity contest. For example in Loving v Virginia when the courts struck down laws against interracial marriage, the bulk of the US society was against interracial marriage. But does that mean that interracial marriage should have been kept illegal? By the way there were laws against interracial marriage in Alabama until its repeal in 2000. And outside of the urban areas, the vote for repeal was lost. Does that mean that in these areas we should allow the ban on interracial marriage to continue?

    You are right in the sense that forcing people might not change their opinion and may be counter-productive. Maybe education in the long run works. BUT the problem is in the case where people are being discriminated against in the mean time. Or how can you educate about something when the law clearly shows that it is illegal.

    Activist Judges/Interpret Law
    One cannot legislate for every single alternative and event. And furthermore, the US is under the common law system. Which means that judges do make the law.

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