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Is Tolerance Always A Virtue?

The word tolerance gets tossed around a lot.  Like most words, it’s easy to hear it and seem like we know what it means, and yet, like most words, there are degrees of meaning in the word that are easy to overlook (or flat out ignore).  If you’ve ever had a job reading a script on the phone, you know that the words in the script lose all meaning once you’re repeated them enough: they are reduced to sounds.

Should every divide be bridged?

Should we always meet halfway?

What does tolerance mean and when does it mean what?

Tolerance was on my mind all the way through the Obama and McCain presidential race.  I’m not sure who brought it up the most, but I heard Sarah Palin say it a lot.  Whenever someone was being pressed about their views on this or that person, group, or viewpoint, they often went to great pains to prove how tolerant they were of that person, group, or viewpoint.

The more I listened, the more I wondered about this word.  Why was it being vaunted as some amazing virtue?  A valued character trait?

I’m certainly not advocating for intolerance, but what I heard being said was “I am tolerant: I am willing to put up with this person, group, or viewpoint if I have to, but I may still be seething with disgust, resentment, or hatred.”

That is just my interpretation and if I could conclusively be proven wrong, I’d be glad.  Not sure that’s possible, though…we often see only what we expect to see and hear only what we want.

What I do know is that in my own family and extended family there are religious people and atheists.  Gays and straight.  Conservatives and liberals.  Passion and apathy.  Cynics and optimists.  I love them all and I hate the thought that any of them are merely “tolerated.”


On the other hand, everyone is entitled to their own viewpoint.  Perhaps nothing is more important.  It’s better that someone have an opposing viewpoint on something than no viewpoint, which happens as well.

So what’s the answer?  If tolerance isn’t always as virtuous as we say, that in no way implies that we should accept things that are repellant to us.  If you accept and endorse everything, I’m not sure what category you fit into.  I believe in celebrating diversity and differences, but I’m not sure what the balance is.

What do you think?  How do you move from tolerance to acceptance, if you believe that is healthy and right?  And when do you stand your ground and say “I don’t tolerate that person, viewpoint, or group, and I’m not changing?”

I’m not sure what I think yet.

Let’s talk in the comments.


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  • Casey August 5, 2009, 8:38 am

    I think a person tolerates something when they have no choice. I tolerate winter because whether I like it or not the cold and snow are coming, essentially I have no other choice.

    When I accept something, I willingly choose to have it in my life. I accept that winter comes every year as part of the natural progression of the seasons.

    With acceptance comes a certain amount of permissibility on the part of the acceptor. If you’re not willing to give your permission to something, then you can’t say you accept it. Granted, no one asks my permission for winter to come, but I’ve made the internal shift.

    If you are going to stand up and say “I don’t tolerate that person, group, or view point” then you are effectively committing yourself to action. If you don’t act out against the person, view point, or group, then despite your statement (or belief) the you are tolerating that which you claimed not to.

    I don’t think one needs to tolerate everything; in fact I encourage people not to! Intolerance breeds action. Action breeds change. Change makes us stronger, better, and wiser. We get into tough moral dilemmas when we start talking about race, religion, and creed. Call this silly, but I’m willing to fall back on our founding fathers and the belief that we have the right to not tolerate anything we want, as long as that intolerance and action associated with that intolerance doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others.

    No one says we have to like each other, but we do all need to get along.

  • Whereismyrobot August 5, 2009, 10:12 am

    Nice post. I just ran across your blog and I really enjoy it as a future Librarian / new jock lady.

    I think as I have grown older, I have come to realize that when I argue with people, it only serves to make us both look bad. So I just sit back and listen, take in what they have to say, and somtimes silently disagree.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 5, 2009, 10:47 am

      Whereismyrobot, what do you mean future librarian? Are you in school? Where?

  • Matt August 5, 2009, 11:41 am

    To me tolerance is a choice of accepting a negative condition or behavior because the overall positives outweigh that negative condition. Josh tolerates the pain of working out because he knows it will make him stronger. Josh’s friend tolerates a job he hates because he gets a large paycheck. If the job starts paying him less or his priorities change then he might decide to quit as the cons start to outweigh the pros. Even tolerating winter is a choice. A person could move to a warmer climate but for most people the bitterness of winter is not worth the cost of having to move, find new job, new social network, etc.

    What about tolerating people. I tolerate my wife’s imperfections because she is a great person. I think the focus of your article is on tolerating people in which you have a moral disagreement. I think tolerating that group means that you disagree with their viewpoint or behavior, but that you realize that there is too much of a downside by restricting that viewpoint or behavior. Liberty for all is more important than placing restrictions.

    We decide that restrictions are needed when the negative behavior affects the life and liberty for others. We have decided that we cannot tolerate a murderer to go free because he has trampled on the freedom of another individual and may do it again.

    I can’t really figure out what acceptance is. I will accept that Josh is a librarian even though I have never personally seen him in a library.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 5, 2009, 11:45 am

      @Matt. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. It’s true that I’m rarely seen in the library, other than by my own staff. I’m usually at meetings in everyone else’s library. I like what you say about balancing positive and negative outcomes. Often I find that I’m much more comfortable calling things positive or negative than Right or Wrong. Take care.

  • Philippe Til August 5, 2009, 3:18 pm

    To me, tolerance has a negative sound to it.
    It makes me think of something I don’t like, disagree with or am bothered by and attempt to ignore it but am forced to acknowledge its existence. Be it the construction noise I heard the first 10 months of moving into a new place at the dwelling next door, or the testing of their alarm system at every floor, every apartment. The workers have to do their job, it’s not their fault, so I tolerate it.
    I am not crazy about surfers bent on localism and acting like they own a wave. I still have to acknowledge them and tolerate their presence in the line-up.

    I like the idea of tolerance as acceptance, but then, I’d chose yet another word. If you’re not homophobic and/or not a racist, for instance, I don’t think acceptance would be my choice word, because it’d mean you’re acknowledging that there is a difference.

    If you like anchovies in your pizza, you don’t think about them. If you hate them, doesn’t matter if they got removed from your slice. It still tainted your slice!

    • Josh Hanagarne August 5, 2009, 3:45 pm

      Philippe, you win the prize for introducing the first anchovie metaphor. Congratulations and thanks for the thoughtful response.

  • David Cain August 5, 2009, 3:35 pm

    To me tolerance is just rejecting something without saying so. It’s still a refusal to reassess one’s opinion, just a commitment to keeping one’s disdain to oneself.

    Tolerating gays, for example, is not an act of compassion, it’s just an act of political correctness. It means you still reject them, but without picking a fight.

    I don’t have too many good things to say about tolerance. As far as I’m concerned, the only use in nonacceptance is to prompt action to change something you think should be changed.

    Great post Josh.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 5, 2009, 3:46 pm

      David, good points and thank you. I like the idea of non-acceptance being an action and not just a state of mind. It’s easy to complain, it’s harder to complain productively.

  • Philippe Til August 5, 2009, 4:03 pm

    I agree with David who eloquently phrased what I was implying too. I do like having zero tolerance, on the flip side, for discrimination, racism, self-pity, rudeness etc.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 5, 2009, 4:24 pm

      That’s great Philippe. I love the rudeness part. Kurt Vonnegut talked a lot about how people just being more courteous and well-mannered would solve most of the world’s problems.

  • Adriane Juarez August 5, 2009, 10:47 pm

    Tolerance is not a virtue if it leads to complacency. However, there are some situations where being courteous and well-mannered makes it reasonable to tolerate something that you may not necessarily agree with or completely accept. Some things are zero tolerance situations. But, one must pick his/her battles.

  • Whereismyrobot August 7, 2009, 11:14 am

    I go to the University of North Texas.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 7, 2009, 11:29 am

      @Whereismyrobot. That’s where I went, too! Say howdy to Dr. Chandler if you get her by any chance.

  • Jeffrey Tang August 8, 2009, 9:20 am

    Tolerance is a virtue only so far as it is necessary to preserve individual freedom. If another person makes choices or takes actions that I disapprove of (or even abhor), I will “tolerate” it so long it doesn’t interfere with my ability to live my life. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I won’t try to change that person’s mind. Nothing wrong with advocating for what you believe is right.

    For example, I may not agree with a person’s choice of religion, but so long as he or she doesn’t try to turn that religion into law or force it (or its consequences) upon me, I have no problem tolerating his/her choice.

    I’m not sure “acceptance” is the best word to use here, Josh. To me, “acceptance” implies a sort of resignation, a kind of “this is the way things are; no point in trying to change things” mentality, which is terrible. If we don’t constantly try to improve our lives and the world around us, then what are we here for?

    Nice post, by the way! Got here from your “I Heard Blogging was Dead” post on problogger (which was a very inspiring post for a newer blogger like me). I’m not sure what this post has to do with being the world’s strongest librarian, but you’ve definitely got yourself a new subscriber 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne August 8, 2009, 9:45 am

      Jeffrey, thank you. Strength means a lot of different things. You can strong physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, whatever. I try to touch on all of them occassionally. This question of tolerance definitely falls in the area of strength of character for me. Your point about acceptance is well-said. It also takes us into the web of semantics which makes many of these types of conversations impossible anyway:) Few people even want to define terms, but those who do come at them from a million different directions. Much appreciated and thanks for the thoughtful response. See you over at BMM:)

  • Jeffrey Tang August 8, 2009, 10:11 am

    Haha, my apologies for bringing in the semantics. Definitely one of my worst faults!

    I agree that the question of tolerance falls under strength of character. What you tolerate or don’t tolerate isn’t so much about other people as it is about you and what you consider good, right, or valuable.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 8, 2009, 12:47 pm

      Jeffrey, not a fault at all. Some people throw up their hands in despair in the battle of words and use it as an excuse to quit thinking altogether. Carry on laddie, carry on!

  • Jannie Funster August 8, 2009, 11:29 am

    I am not sure as to why “It’s better that someone have an opposing viewpoint on something than no viewpoint, which happens as well.”

    Some people choose to speak to a higher inner energy vibration connected to universal harmony than to become embroiled in something superficial like having an opinion just for having an opinion’s sake. That speaks better of true tolerance to me than anything else.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 8, 2009, 12:49 pm

      Hi Jannie. This is just my two cents. I see in America that most people are just happy to let other people have all the opinions, although they still want to be in the conversation. I’m afraid I can’t speak to universal harmony or energy vibrations but whatever I’m getting at, it’s not that you should have an opinion just to have an opinion. You’re right about superficiality and I agree that nothing is less moving than artifice. Only that if you’re curious, you’re going to have opinions, because you’ll be questioning and improving, hopefully…or not. Maybe I’m just crazy. Thanks for the responses today.

  • Janine August 9, 2009, 2:24 pm

    I think that we cannot straddle the fence in our beliefs or values…no matter what color, race, creed, religion, political group, whatever, whomever we are. This has nothing to do with being fanatical and pointing the finger at others or any kind of intolerance for others.

    I believe that our own acceptance of what we believe to be true, our own value system if you will, creates peace within ourselves, and that alone negates the need for contention even in opposition; that creates acceptance. I can openly and verbally have my own opinion (and often do on my blog and elsewhere) but that never infringes on another’s opinion or belief, we’re all entitled to our own opinions and I can accept another’s disagreement or viewpoint even if it vastly conflicts with my own, but I will always stand up for myself and my opinions/beliefs.

    I like the analogy about winter because it brings up a good point. Yes, seasons will change, but we have not just one choice of moving to a warmer climate, but we can leave the cold climate temporarily, change our surroundings in order to come back and have a renewed perspective. Such is life, sometimes we must temporarily remove ourselves from a situation so that we can clearly see it in order to make judgements if necessary.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 9, 2009, 3:51 pm

      Janine, the winter comparison is very astute. Thanks for being a genius!

  • Stephanie Smith August 10, 2009, 5:44 am

    Josh -Your post on tolerance really hit me hard. I have lived around the world as a military brat – the longest time in Denmark (age 13-20) and I can say with some authority that Americans are probably the least tolerant of any nation. We proclaim to be the land of the free, yet we have more and more groups trying to infringe on the rights of the individual than I could begin to name here. Then there are the numerous labels we use to define total strangers. I don’t mean to sound bitter, but having been on the receiving end of some of said labels, tolerance is low on most people’s social skill set. America’s subcultures are where acceptance reigns. Let me give you and example: I am a biker. I ride a Harley & I have tattoos. Now, I am also college educated, have a nursing degree and speak 3 languages. When I am on my bike though, I am “a biker”, which for many people in our society has a negative connotation. It’s sad that this group of people who spend more on their bikes than most people do on a care and give more per year to charity are labeled as biker trash.
    Tolerance? Opposing viewpoints are great – I say: you don’t have to agree with me, or even tolerate me, just don’t force your views or lifestyle down my throat. Until we can accept and embrace each other’s differences, we will never be a complete and whole people.
    OK -enough blathering on. I am going to subscribe to your newsletter because you ahve a thought provoking and fun style and also because I too am an avid book lover. Good luck with your book deal -what an incredible journey! As we bikers say:”It’s not the destination, it’s the journey!”

    • Josh Hanagarne August 10, 2009, 7:40 am

      Stephanie, thanks for this perspective. I work with a woman who is married to a biker, Vietnam vet, tattooed, etc. We talk a lot about this because her husband deals with this all the time. He’s a nice, kind man, but not everyone is going to see past his bike. That’s awesome about the charity work and I’m thrilled to have another book lover hanging around. Can’t have too many. Thanks again.

  • Billy October 24, 2009, 7:07 pm

    There’s also a matter of time, or more precisely, lack thereof.

    Just like I don’t have the time to participate in this recession, I don’t have the time to be intolerant. I don’t like many of the things I see around me, but I’m not going to stop showering and pick up a placard and march around, chanting with a scant few others about whatever is upsetting us. I just don’t have the time to do that. So, I’ll put up with whatever it is that’s itching my backside. For now.