Tolerance, O Tolerance — An Ode, A Lament

I don’t know if anyone remembers, but early last quarter I became quite agitated about tolerance. Never one to let things go, I insisted on writing a short paper (“short” means under 3,000 words) to justify my in-class comments.

Tolerance and Intolerance: A Paradox


Tolerance and intolerance are not the innocent, simple, or one-dimensional terms which they appear to be in current American discourse. Each word has been used, abused, misused, and twisted in the service of radically disparate agendas. It is often frustrating when two sides, each preaching tolerance, accuses the other side of demonstrating intolerance – when, in fact, perhaps neither side, whether tolerant or intolerant, has anything life-affirming to offer. Even the “tolerance” being fought over is not the moral high ground.

While neither tolerance nor intolerance is prima facie virtuous, tolerance and intolerance are by no means equivalent. In different situations, either tolerance or intolerance can be the right choice or at least the lesser of two evils. However, I contend that it is moral cowardice and intellectually dishonest to shrug our shoulders and say[1] “who are we to judge?”

Tolerance: Its Uses and Misuses

From the illiberal “zero-tolerance” policies[2] in public schools to the ironically named “True Tolerance”[3] campaign of Focus on the Family, the modifiers tacked onto the word “tolerance” can dramatically shift our perception both of the word itself and of its associated policies.

As we go through life, we encounter things which must be tolerated. I for one find myself gritting my teeth and tolerating cold weather, children screaming in the grocery store, and my mother-in-law. I tolerate these things because there is absolutely nothing I can do to change them – and I would change them if I could. My lack of indifference but ultimate resignation are the characteristics of tolerance.

The unpleasantness of tolerance aside, tolerance is a baseline expectation to be extended to fellow human beings. This extension is a depressing project. Tolerance is patronizing and reminiscent of a parent-child relationship (the implication is almost always, “I’m right, you’re wrong”). Tolerance is what you enact when you can’t find it in yourself to include; tolerance is as much about exclusion as it is about the possibilities of inclusion.

One demonstrable abuse of the word tolerance is found in the “intolerance cloaked in tolerance” meme, which is progressives’ response to what they see as disingenuous messaging by cultural conservatives. For example, in the Political Research Associates’ report The Right’s Marriage Message: Talking Tolerance, Marketing Inequality, researcher David Dodge writes that the “National Organization for Marriage offers this talking point for use with broad audiences: ‘Gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.’ It sounds tolerant while denying rights to LGBTQ people” (Dodge, Foreword).

By saying “sounds tolerant,” Dodge implies that this isn’t his definition of tolerance, and he supports this implication with his claim that the National Organization for Marriage is “denying rights to LGBTQ people.” This is the “intolerance cloaked in tolerance” meme; like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the National Organization for Marriage is putting on a show of tolerance as an act of deception, or so says Dodge.

But Dodge’s reasoning is baffling. Isn’t the white-knuckling of the heterosexists the ultimate definition of tolerance? They have largely conceded that “gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose.” They are not condoning, celebrating, or nurturing towards the LGBTQ community. All the cultural conservatives have done is given up on forcing gays and lesbians back into the closet. This is “progress.” This is also a ridiculously low bar. This is “tolerance” as we know and practice it in America. This is tolerance in the service of exclusion.

Neither Dodge’s definition of tolerance, nor my own as presented above, is reconcilable with the “tolerance” preached by the American Fundamentalist Christian Right. Peter LaBarbera laments that “gay activists” no longer believe in “tolerance;” he says this because they are not tolerating his efforts to repeal all civil rights protections for LGBTQ Americans.[4] Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), speaking as a defender of “traditional marriage,” accuses those who are intolerant of his intolerance of “hypocrisy” and wants tolerance to be “a two-way street.”[5] Franklin Graham says “political correctness demands tolerance of everything,”[6] which manages to be as insulting to Marco Rubio as to liberal proponents of political correctness.

Tolerance and acceptance are both considered manifestations of negative attitudes on the Riddle Homophobia Scale.[7] Support, admiration, appreciation, and nurturance are the positive attitudes associated with difference. It is important that we begin to identify the word “tolerance” with the negative behaviors it connotes instead of exhorting our political opponents to live up to it as some glorified standard.

Intolerance: “Up With Which I Will Not Put”[8]

The most meaningful modifier to attach to “tolerance” is probably the prefix “in-.” A brief example: the Museum of Tolerance[9], which honors Holocaust victims, implies with its name that “intolerance” places one into the same category as Nazis; from this usage alone, one can conclude that she certainly would not wish to be considered intolerant. Perhaps it is for this reason that “tolerance is held to be more in line with the (universal) truth about morality than intolerance is” (Harris, 45).

The concept of intolerance is dramatically different from the concept of tolerance because intolerance is not a baseline expectation. Intolerance is a result of either of two forces: training (no one is born full of hate, and colloquially, intolerance is a manifestation of hate or fear), or encountering that which should not be tolerated.[10] That which should not be tolerated usually shows its face in the form of hatred or violence, but never arrives in the form of human life. The fact that intolerance has two such radically different potential meanings is an inherent paradox of intolerance.

In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper argues for limited uses of intolerance, writing, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them” (543-544, n4). Fighting intolerance with tolerance is neither virtuous nor a winning proposition.

Neither is fighting intolerance by withholding judgment a particularly appealing proposition: “Remember that saying nothing is also a decision, and that the relativists and the ‘nonjudgmental’ have made up their minds just as much, if not as firmly” (Hitchens, 83).

History offers us a significant example. No one is disagreeing that the Third Reich is characterized, at least in part, by massive quantities of high-octane intolerance. Furthermore, I would not wish to be accused of victim-blaming, because I understand the impossibility of outright resistance in the context of the Third Reich. I only suggest, in the same manner it was suggested by Hannah Arendt, that perhaps some Jewish leaders and officials were too eager to be tolerant of what was being done to their communities. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt reports that Jews voluntarily registered, “then assembled at the collection points and boarded the trains” (Arendt, 115). To a very large degree, the Holocaust is not at all a tragedy wrought by intolerance.

The Spaces In Between

The tension between tolerance and intolerance can be negotiated in multiple ways. Here I will examine some possible negotiations, keeping in mind the caveats that tolerance, while ignoble, is a baseline expectation, and intolerance, even in the name of the moral high ground, should not possess the hubris to assume our judgments are always correct.[11]

Choice: They Might Know What They Do

Choice plays an enormous role in human destiny. In a situation where, genuinely, no options exists – where something is happening to you and you have no agency at all – it is perhaps less than comforting to remember that the agents acting upon us have their own choices to make. “Human responsibilities” is an equally trite slogan as “human rights,” but at least “human responsibilities” would acknowledge where the power lies.

Even ignorance is often a choice. We can choose to call that ignorance to account by demanding human responsibilities.

Sitting with my grandparents in a nice, safe, middle-class church of the Presbyterian persuasion, I first heard Luke 23:24: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The minister proceeded to give a most idealistic interpretation of this scripture, preaching that Jesus was accepting the sins of his murderers even in the moment of dying for those sins. For the young white girl, the moral of the story is clear: Jesus on the cross is gracious.

I understand that because I am not a Christian, my far more literal interpretation of Luke 23:24 may be suspect; I cannot claim divine inspiration for my point of view. Nevertheless, I would propose we consider for a moment that Jesus was flat-out wrong.

The soldiers may not have known that they were actors in a story that, for believers and (non)believers alike, has reverberated from that day onward. They may not have understood the identity of the man they were executing. But so what? We’re all ignorant of our place in human history. And they damn sure knew that they were putting nails into a human body.

We often say that “ignorance is no excuse,” but when it comes to life-denying practices, we are almost never dealing strictly in the currency of ignorance or enlightenment. Insofar as any real ignorance exists, it has been selectively and protectively incorporated into life-denying ideologies. I have no qualms about exhibiting intolerance towards those ideologies.

Critical Reflection: Examining the Known Unknowns

“The Socratic love of wisdom holds not only that the unexamined life is not worth living (Apology 38a) but also that to be human and a democratic citizen requires that one muster the courage to think critically for oneself…This pursuit shatters one’s petty idols, false illusions, and seductive fetishes; it undermines blind conformity, glib complacency, and pathetic cowardice.” – Dr. Cornel West, Democracy Matters (West, 208)

Tolerance is not a categorical imperative, necessary for moral behavior in all instances. The belief that tolerance could be a categorical imperative is where well-intentioned progressives often fail to exercise critical reflection, and through that critical reflection, moral judgment. I would suggest that tolerance, which has been serving as a “petty idol, false illusion, and seductive fetish,” be replaced by a humanistic practice of critical reflection, consisting of evidence, empathy, and reason.

Here is an example from one of the conflicts in the world today. I can reasonably conclude that, due to the pain and inevitable death (convincing evidence, to say the least), I do not wish to be decapitated. Through empathy, I can relate to other human beings and understand that they, too, would not wish to be decapitated.

This is enough of a foundation for me to judge that people who cut off other people’s heads are excluded from the niceties of a civil society. I can judge such an action to be morally wrong – in the context of this paper, intolerable, that which should not be tolerated – based on evidence, empathy, and reason. What other grounds for a moral truth should we be looking for?

For this reason, I cannot help but see the student group who decided against denouncing the Islamic State,[12] simply because they were afraid of re-enacting Western imperialism, as anything other than cowardly. Imperialism is not life-affirming, and I understand the need to say that loudly and often. Simultaneously, I can conclude that the world ought not to include beheadings. I am capable of reaching that conclusion and I am capable of defending it.

The abstract principles of tolerance and diversity are not people, to be treated only as ends and never means. Those principles are, in fact, means in the service of real, breathing people. Recognition of diverse experiences and efforts to diversify social institutions are not minimized when we acknowledge that these are insufficient to create lasting, meaningful change.[13] Diversification is a single tool in the project of social justice. The end goal is far different from mere diversity – it’s a just society.


It seems as though tolerance is given great press by well-meaning white liberals, who are largely unwilling to consider what preconditions are needed to create an environment which would allow for meaningful tolerance. The ability to exercise judgment, to decide what should be tolerated and what should never be tolerated, is a prerequisite to the creation of an appropriately tolerant society.

I say “appropriately tolerant” because it is quite obvious to me that there are things which should not be tolerated. “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance,”[14] says Karl Popper. Later in the paragraph, Popper continues: “We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

I hold the belief that tolerance of intolerance is not a virtue. I would further add that tolerance without intolerance cannot be a virtue, as it demonstrates a complete lack of judgment. The ability to exercise judgment – and to make the choice of when it is absolutely right to be intolerant, relativism be damned – is a significant project. It is the project of becoming fully human. As John Green said, in a particularly fun explanation of why we should study history, “The test will last your entire life and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that when, taken together, make your life yours. And everything – everything – will be on it.”[15]

References and Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Ethics of Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Dodge, David. The Right’s Marriage Message: Talking Tolerance, Marketing Inequality. Political Research Associates, January 2013. Accessed 12 Nov. 2014.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press. 2010.

Hitchens, Christopher. Letters to a Young Contrarian. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 1. Fifth edition (revised) 1966. Electronic. Accessed 10 Nov. 2014.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Chapter 12: What a Difference a Difference Makes.” Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004. 251-276.

West, Cornel. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

[1] I’ve encountered this reaction among my fellow graduate students, and I find it distressing. Hannah Arendt attributes this attitude to Adolf Eichmann (Arendt, 114) and says “he was neither the first nor the last to be ruined by modesty.” Christopher Hitchens calls this same attitude an “invitation to passivity or acquiescence” (Hitchens, 41). If we become too besotted with intellectualizing the world’s problems, ineffectual relativism inevitably follows.

[2] Zero-tolerance policies take away the teacher’s ability to exercise discretion, which is inherently illiberal. Furthermore, zero-tolerance policies fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.

[3] Fundamentalist Christians in recent years have contended that efforts to make schools safe for LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming children are actually just a manifestation of anti-Christian bigotry. keeps these fundamental Christian parents informed of the ways that their “Christian beliefs” are not being “tolerated” by the public schools.




[7] The Riddle Scale is difficult to cite because it first appeared in creator Dorothy Riddle’s workshops. However, many universities and LGBTQ resource and community centers around the world now provide the Riddle Scale on their websites and in their diversity or anti-bullying materials. Here is an example of such a resource:

[8] Sadly, this quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, is only apocryphal, according to The Churchill Centre. It is still an interesting quote because it captures the posturing side of intolerance. Again, we are not discussing innocent terminology.

[9] See

[10] Training and encounter with the intolerable, of course, are not mutually exclusive. The way I was raised, for example, predisposed me to hate fascism when I eventually encountered it. For the purposes of this paper, intolerance will be characterized as either negative feelings towards the Other or as an encounter with the intolerable, but the overlap will not be examined in depth.

[11] Oliver Cromwell said it best: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” This, I believe, is in no way a plea for moral relativism.

[12] Shukman, Harry. “NUS refuses to condemn ISIS terrorists…because it’s ‘Islamophobic.’” The Tab. 14 Oct. 2014. Access 9 Nov. 2014.

[13] “For many liberals, diversity has become an unquestioned good – like justice, freedom, and happiness, the more diversity, the better” (Haidt, 177).

[14] Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 1. Fifth edition (revised) 1966. Notes to Chapter 7, pg. 543-544, Note 4. Electronic. Accessed 10 Nov. 2014.

[15] Green, John. “The Agricultural Revolution: Crash Course World History #1.” January 26, 2012. Accessed 10 Nov. 2014.