Why Tolerance Matters

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For Sunday, April 12, 2015

(Photo courtesy of Freedigitalphoto.net)


Why Tolerance Matters

David W. Hegg


Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock somewhere you’re acutely aware we are becoming an increasingly touchy society. It seems the new national sport is overreaction to issues that, while not unworthy of discussion, are certainly not worthy of vitriolic outbursts and mean-spirited acts of violence.


We’ve become a society whose surface is so sunburned any little touch sets us off. And unless we can rediscover a bedrock principle necessary to the health of any pluralistic society we will certainly devolve further and further into a polarized, hate-filled nation.


We need to rediscover tolerance. I am not talking about tolerance as those insisting disagreement equals prejudice have redefined it. For these folks, to tolerate is to agree and accept. Unless you are accepting my views and my behavior as legitimate, you are intolerant!


Ultimately, this wrong-headed view of tolerance demands that all differences be eliminated, and everyone forced to believe the majority view. This re-imagined definition rules out any consideration that minority opinions have a place in society. Ultimately, those who have co-opted tolerance for their own purposes are arguing for totalitarianism, and they don’t even know it. They simply can’t tolerate intolerance as they define it.


Most movements today asserting their right to participate in the public square of ideas were once  minority opinions whose adherents demanded that their opponents at least tolerate their position. And by tolerate they meant put up with, not agree with. They recognized they were swimming upstream against the current of culture, and held that their being different should not be a reason for either persecution or expulsion. What they desired was tolerance, as it has always been understood. They didn’t expect everyone around them to change their opinions. They simply wanted the freedom to express theirs without recrimination.


That’s what tolerance really means. To tolerate presupposes a difference of opinion. To tolerate means to put up with those with whom we radically disagree. It never has meant to agree with them … until now. And frankly, it’s killing us.


As a pluralistic nation it is absolutely essential we understand and practice the true meaning of tolerance. If we expect to remain a nation that hangs together despite our differences, we must not become so sunburned on the surface that bumping into those with whom we differ causes us to forget who we are at the core.


America is the grand democratic experiment, built on the premise that all are created equal. But if we declare equality means we all must have the same opinions, we’re on the way to being a totalitarian state where some get to determine what equal means for the rest of us. And that won’t be America.


So, for example, if you believe same-sex marriage is appropriate, so be it. But don’t expect those of us who disagree to remain quiet about what we believe. We can at least agree that neither of us has the right to curtail someone’s business through hate campaigns or force someone to go against their strongly held religious beliefs. We don’t agree, but we must tolerate one another. We can argue vociferously, but we must stop short of inflicting harm. Why? Because at the core we are all human beings, made to image our loving and holy God. Ultimately we have the most important thing in common: personhood. And what’s more, we’re also Americans, and we’re in this together.


That’s tolerance, and it is essential if we are to remain the melting pot of cultures and values and ideas that our forefathers envisioned. How sad it would be if the worm that caused the flower of our democracy to shrivel turned out to be a selfish unrecognized desire for totalitarianism. I just hope it is not too late.