The Misuse of Tolerance: How Learning to Disagree Will Bring Us Together

“Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” — G.K. Chesterton

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” — Dalai Lama

As a Westerner living in a Middle East country, every day is an adventure in what we call “tolerance” back in the US.

Living in a culture so vastly different than Western culture brings a new perspective on “tolerance”– I’ve been going over this in my mind recently. What follows are my mental ramblings on the subject.

Tolerance.org, an organization that helps promote tolerance in education, writes on its site: “In its Declaration on the Principles of Tolerance, UNESCO offers a definition of tolerance that most closely matches our philosophical use of the word: ‘Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. Tolerance is harmony in difference.’”

These definitions reveal what I have come to believe about American culture: we are terrified to disagree with each other and we are convinced that disagreement will lead to division, hatred and violence. Indeed, I have close friends and family with whom I am terrified to talk about religion and politics for fear of some big blow-up or disagreement.

It seems in an effort to stop ugly disagreements and self-righteousness we’ve developed this idea of tolerance. At its bare-bones, the idea of tolerance is great: don’t be so ethnocentric or self-centered that you judge others as less than you. But we have twisted this great idea into its own ethnocentric judgmental criterion.

It is to the point in the U.S. that if you condemn an idea, you are accused of being intolerant and self-righteous (especially if the idea is seen as a progressive one).  The idea of tolerance, how it is practiced now, seems to devalue and condemn whoever it deems intolerant. How are we ever to learn from each other if we cannot talk about ideas without condemning each other as awful people? We need to learn how to disagree and still value each other.

In our misuse of “tolerance” (of which I am also guilty), we have defined it very poorly and applied it in ways in which it cancels itself out.

Poorly Defined

The definition given above is logically inconsistent. It states that “Tolerance is harmony in difference.” But just before it states that, “tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation” of differences. If I respect, accept and appreciate the ideas and practices that make you different from me, then we are no longer different because I have now accepted your ideas and practices.

For example, say I am convinced that female circumcision is inherently wrong and oppressive no matter the context. You believe that female circumcision is okay within the cultural context in which it is practiced. Can I respect, accept and appreciate your view that female circumcision is a good form “of expression” and a good way “of being human”? I cannot “accept” your view, that’s why my view is different. I think my view is correct, that is why I cannot “respect” your view–I think it is wrong because I believe it is inhumane. And if I think it is wrong and oppressive, I cannot “appreciate” your view.

These definitions of tolerance fail us miserably when we scratch just below the surface–beyond superficial things like cultural dress and celebrations.

Here we run into the same problem I mentioned in my blog about the idea that all religions are the same. If we either a) only focus on the areas where we are the same, or b) accept and respect every idea for the sake of harmony, we end up with a false harmony–a harmony based on both parties not being allowed to be fully themselves. They are outwardly stunted, pruned and trimmed to avoid conflict. But the real differences are still there, lurking below the surface, and they are never brought into dialogue, never talked about, never allowed to emerge. We can never fully know and understand each other when we fear having real differences and fear expressing them.

Poorly Implemented

Unfortunately, tolerance is itself an ideal that not every culture holds. In other words, tolerance teaches me to accept and appreciate “the rich diversity of our world’s cultures” when many of those cultures do not teach tolerance. Tolerance unwittingly becomes another form of ethnocentrism by saying “Our cultural way (tolerance) is best. Intolerance is not acceptable.” By promoting a worldview that accepts all cultures, it becomes intolerant of worldviews that do not accept all cultures.

Take, for example, the cultural parts of America that say “God hates gays.” Can someone who promotes tolerance (like myself) “accept” and “appreciate” that cultural view? I cannot. Or, can they accept and appreciate the culture of Saudi Arabia that restricts women from stepping outside the home without a male relative? Those cultures are not tolerant so tolerance by definition cannot accept and appreciate them.

Tolerance, as a concept, tries to decrease a judgmental, self-righteousness that ends up hurting and dividing people. But because it has become a philosophy itself, I have seen people who pride themselves on being tolerant say the most vicious and self-righteous things about those they deem intolerant (I’m guilty of this myself). The quality of people we call intolerant (like those who say God hates gays)– nonacceptance and self-righteousness– is mimicked by we who say we are tolerant, because we do not accept anything but tolerance and are sure we are right. Certainly, we can see the irony in that.

So what do we do?

I suggest we redefine the idea to specifically mean acceptance and respect of other people as fellow human beings with equal value no matter what. In other words, I do not have to respect your actions or your ideas but I respect you as a person no matter your actions or ideas.

Inherent in this view is that all people have equal intrinsic value that is not dependent on the views they hold or the things they do. The value of a human does not ebb or flow with their actions.

Further, we must recognize this idea as one that not everyone holds. So those who do not think all people have equal value should not be denigrated or thought of as less–we can fight their idea, but they are also equally valuable as people.

Secondly- and this is a must- we need to practice arguing and disagreeing fairly without it damaging the relationship. A good friend of mine, who grew up in the Middle East, came to the U.S.A. for college. For the first time she was introduced to the theological discussion around the God of the Old Testament seeming so angry and the God of the New Testament seeming so loving. She was baffled because she never saw that discrepancy, though she knew The Bible well. She didn’t see an inconsistency between anger and love–in her culture, expressions of anger do not rule out close relationship and love. In fact, love sometimes is the impetus for anger.

Lack of argument is not harmony. In the white US culture especially, we often think arguments are bad and we avoid really knowing each other for sake of this fake peace. I think we need to learn to argue fairly and be okay with disagreements. If we really try to value the other person we can battle over the ideas and practices–and maybe even understand each other better in the end.

Another definition of ‘tolerance’ puts it this way: “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.” (dictionary.reference.com).

Might I suggest a slight tweaking of that definition? “Tolerance is a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward other humans whose opinions and practices differ from one’s own.”

If we want a false harmony and a philosophy that continues to breed self-righteousness from all sides, by all means, let us continue defining and practicing tolerance as we have.

I’d rather have true dialogue and mutual respect as people, though it may cause arguments–at least it breeds understanding and brings us together.

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7 Comments on “The Misuse of Tolerance: How Learning to Disagree Will Bring Us Together”

  1. Colin Michell Says:

    What a refreshing post. Only once we get rid of the politically correct nonsense of not saying something for fear of causing offence will we start having real dialogue and maybe start solving world problems instead of wishing them away

  2. Ben Says:

    On this we agree. However, you are so very very bigoted it astounds me. By limiting this to humans you are trampling on the rights of all animals to hold different opinions, and don’t get me started on tolerance for extra-terrestrial aliens. 🙂

    • boehadden Says:

      You crack me up 🙂

      Note that if I say a specific animal doesn’t agree with me, it usually means stomach trouble. 😉

      As for extra-terrestrial aliens: I think their great, as long as my daughter never brings one home… 😉

  3. Carrie Says:

    your daughter?!?

  4. AR Says:

    Well-thought out and argued! I made this mistake with my son. He had a friend down the street and when she got bored she would begin to provoke her brothers against my son and they would do things to scare him or make him cry because they thought his explosive reactions were funny. At first I kept telling my son that he needed to not get angry, try not to mind, forgive, etc. Finally, one day they threatened to kidnap him and shut him in a closet, and they chased him around their house with ropes. He escaped and ran home and this story frightened even me! I instructed him on how to approach the mother about it, but she just said, “Boys will be boys.” I didn’t confront the mother, and just told my son to avoid the house when the brothers were there. The end result: one day my son confided to me that he hates every single person in that house but he has to pretend to care about them so that the little girl will play with him. I realized that by teaching him to “smooth over” behavior instead of confronting it, I’d encouraged him to develop the social attitude I hate most, the one where everybody plays nice even when there are serious relationship problems just under the surface. In the name of forgiveness, I’d forced my son to become emotionally dishonest.

    I think there are all sorts of dishonesty that can arise from false tolerance and I’ve come to believe that it’s a form of respect to tell someone you disagree with what they are doing when it is damaging you or those you are responsible for or the innocent and helpless. Only then is it truly tolerance to play with them or eat with them or whatever. Without the honesty, that’s just cowardice and, implicitly, a stamp of approval on their behavior. I think with practice people can learn to be honest without tearing the other person down, whereas infrequent explosions of honesty in an otherwise repressed relationship are pretty destructive.

    I don’t have any experience in a foreign country, though. That must be difficult at times. I’ve always been burned up about female circumcision, since I read a first-person story about it in Reader’s Digest as a teenager. In this article, a woman who escaped from an African society that practiced it condemned the practice and mourned her own loss of wholeness. I just don’t see how anyone can take the anthropologist’s view and I think that wherever possible the engine of government ought to be used to stop it, and that’s coming from a limited-government American conservative.

    Maybe it would help to stop calling it circumcision, since it’s not really the same thing as male circumcision, which is something we do have to be tolerant of (though I don’t think anyone should practice even that unless for religious reasons.) Removal of actual sexual organs is just plain mutilation and it is also working against God’s creative act. Oddly enough, I see a psychological parallel with Bill Gothard and others who teach that parents should “break the will” of the child through corporal punishment. By overwhelming the child’s ability to resist through terror, humiliation and pain, they seek to remove this God-given member of a person’s psyche in order to make them more pliant, thus more fit for religious life in their view. It’s psychological mutilation and I don’t respect this under religious freedom.


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