The Intolerance of Tolerance

One of the buzzwords these days is “tolerance.” I’ve seen people who have been attacked as intolerant just because they take a stand or voice an opinion. It’s a powerful word. It can be used to stop a discussion in its tracks. It is a word that can render someone persona-non-grata and is often used (in an ad hominem argument) to black list someone in a single swoop!

So what does this powerful word mean? Let’s start with a look at the definition. The Merriam Webster Dictionary says, 1: capacity to endure pain or hardship 2: sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own 3: the allowable deviation from a standard; especially: the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece

For the purposes of this discussion, I am focusing on definition number 2., “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” This is the issue that holds so much controversy in our day and causes so much tension. Tolerance as an ideal is great. We really should be willing and able to listen to others and show sympathy for their views. If you live in a country that touts freedom as one of its virtues tolerance should be a pillar of the community. We should in no way malign or hurt others for holding differing ideas from ours. That is what freedom is all about in a democratic society. The issue that I have, with the idea of tolerance today, is the way that the actual meaning of the word has been changed.

The dictionary definition of the word “tolerance” has not changed, but on the streets, in the vernacular, its meaning has changed a great deal. The old definition of tolerance was in strict accordance with Voltaire when he said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” In other words, we used to recognize that there had to be disagreement between two people for tolerance to take place. Let me give you an example, I could say to you “I tolerate soccer fans”. If you know anything about me you would say “you’re and idiot! You ARE a soccer fan!”. I am after all a huge soccer fan. If, however, I were to say to you “I tolerate baseball fans and even had a civil conversation about a 26 inning ball game with someone” (letting you in on a little secret, I do NOT like baseball) you might say, “That’s very tolerant of you”. Why would I expect you to react that way? Because if I agree with you I cannot be said to be tolerant, I am merely on your side. I am in lock step with you if I agree with you. I have to, by definition, disagree with you so I can be tolerant of your view. There is no other way to put it.

With all that said, the common use of the word has changed in every day use and in the media at large. A person is called intolerant if they take a firm stand on an issue claiming that someone else is, I hesitate to use the “W” word … WRONG! This can be seen as tantamount to hate speech. It is down right nasty and intolerant! But you see it is actually the most tolerant of positions to take. Recently a survey was done on a college campus and what it found is very interesting. Students were asked which is more tolerant, 1. a person who says all views are correct and equally valid, or 2. the person who takes a firm stand on an issue, yet is willing to allow for others to hold their views….. students were most likely to respond that the first person was the most tolerant.

You see, the problem with this new definition is that it renders the word nonsensical and even useless. I would argue that without strong disagreement and a willingness to allow others to have their dissenting opinions, we are left with a weak and useless word, meaning nothing. In fact it is a very scary position to be in because people insisting on a tolerance that says, “To be tolerant you MUST agree and support all ideas as beings equally as true or valid” are left with an insurmountable dilemma: If all ideas are equally as valid and equally true, then you have no way of judging whether Mother Theresa’s ideas or Hitler’s ideas were any different or valid, and that, my friend, is a VERY scary place to find yourself.

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About newsphotojournalist

The day in the life of a photojournalist. Actually more like the week in the life. This Vlog is the week in review of the stories I did through the last week, using the sound bites and video that ... well ... didn't make the cut. View all posts by newsphotojournalist

2 responses to “The Intolerance of Tolerance

  • yayazanny

    I am not being tolerant by saying I agree with you – I am merely exercising my right in a democratic society to state my opinion of agreement. Well done, Spencer!

  • Simeon

    Thank you for saying what I have found so difficult to voice in this huge culture war. This is a huge part of the undercurrent which had been bothering me. It feels so great to be able to put a finger on this part of it!

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