Santa Clarita Signal • Opinion Column • Ethically Speaking • For February 26, 2011
What Happened to Tolerance?
David W. Hegg
If we listed the cardinal virtues, one of them would be patience. It also goes under the names of longsuffering, and tolerance. It is in this last guise - tolerance - that patience is making a name for itself in our day. And yet, while the outer skin of this virtue remains intact, society is eating away at its core to the place that tolerance as a virtue barely exists.
To tolerate means, at its basic core, to put up with differences in those around us. It is the virtue of being able to listen to the insights and beliefs of others without needing either to agree, or to silence them. To tolerate is to let those with whom you differ have a place, and have a voice. Further, it is to insist that such practice is necessary for civilization and true freedom to exist.
Of course, law exists to define what a society will not tolerate lest it be torn apart. But, a great many areas of life are left to be patrolled by regular people employing the virtues of love, respect, honesty, and yes, tolerance.
But, while many of our cardinal virtues are being eroded before our eyes, perhaps tolerance is taking the biggest hit. Sadly, tolerance has been badly re-defined.
Simply put, tolerance is not acceptance or agreement. But it is almost universally understood that way today. Too often, those demanding tolerance are really saying everyone else must agree with their view of things. “If you don't accept my view, you are intolerant. If you disagree with my belief, my lifestyle, or my actions, you are intolerant.”
My concern is not only that a good English word is having its meaning sucked away and replaced. My great concern is that without tolerance our society falls apart. And if we re-define tolerance as agreement, we are left without a tool with which to manage the genuine differences that will always exist in a pluralistic society.
Tolerance presupposes differences. Tolerance never means acceptance. To tolerate, there has to be a difference of opinion that needs to be tolerated. If, through dialogue and evidence, two parties come to agreement, there is no longer a need to tolerate simply because the gap between the two no longer exists. To equate difference with prejudice, and to further define tolerance as acceptance is not only to murder the English language but also to erode the very virtues our differences demand if we are to live in civilized society.
I'll go out on a limb here. I do not believe abortion is good for our society, or for any of those who endure it. This is my belief. I base my belief on my understanding of the Bible, which also calls on me to love my fellow man. I am called, biblically, to love my neighbor, as well as to love my enemy. Clearly, that covers everyone.
You can disagree with my belief. You can try to mount evidence that contradicts mine, and even suggest I am misguided or worse. But, as long as I believe those with whom I disagree have a place, and a right to hold and voice their opinions - within the bounds of law - you cannot, and must not, say I am intolerant. In fact, you ought to be glad I am tolerant, for it is my tolerance that keeps me from forgetting the command of my Lord to love even those who oppose me.
My disagreement with abortion is not intolerance, it is disagreement, and it is the virtue of tolerance that makes sure my disagreement remains agreeable. To be intolerant is to take steps to eradicate what I refuse to tolerate, and that amounts to fascism.
Of course, this cuts both ways. Those desiring to be tolerated are ethically required to be tolerant in return. And when they seek to silence all opposing voices, they end up ironic bastions of intolerance, awash in hypocrisy. In our society, those who demand to be tolerated while refusing to tolerate, we call children.
Where our system of laws allows for individual beliefs and convictions we will always be a society of differences. But, each time an opposing belief system is labeled intolerant we erode both our language and our ultimate freedom. It's time we got out our dictionaries and became much more tolerant of the true definition of tolerance.