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.
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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