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?”

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Whee! Week 2! (And musings on tolerance.)

Here are two statements that are quite different from each other:

Tolerance is not a virtue.

Intolerance is a virtue.

This week, I found myself having to defend against the proposition that the first is equal to the second. It was bizarre, because I wasn’t arguing for or against the validity of either statement, which would have been a far more interesting discussion. Instead, I was forced to clarify that when I said “tolerance is not a virtue,” it was not an underhanded way of saying that “intolerance is a virtue.” The two statements are not at all the same.

Neither tolerance nor intolerance is prima facie virtuous, but the main reason that “tolerance is not a virtue” is not an equivalent claim to “intolerance is a virtue” is because of what tolerance is instead of being a virtue: a baseline expectation to be extended to fellow human beings. Tolerance is patronizing and reminiscent of a parent-child relationship (I’m right, you’re wrong). Tolerance is what you enact when you can’t find it in yourself to accept. Don’t kid yourself — tolerance is as much about exclusion as it is about inclusion.

I tolerate the Westboro Baptist Church because I believe in the Bill of Rights. I deserve neither a cookie nor a gold star, because I don’t believe in the Bill of Rights on the behalf of hate groups. I just accept that the Westboro Baptist Church is a gross side effect of the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly. In a free country, there are going to be hate groups, and that’s unfortunate.

Intolerance is not a baseline expectation. Intolerance is a result of either of two forces: training (no one is born full of hate), or encountering what should not be tolerated (usually in the form of hatred or violence, but never in the form of a human being).

If you would like to be intolerant, here are five things you can try being intolerant of. In no particular order:

  1. Child abuse
  2. Intimate partner violence
  3. Rape (all)
  4. Police brutality
  5. The anti-vaccination movement (which imperils everyone’s health)

I can think of more — a LOT more — but these are the easiest to defend. (Murder didn’t make the cut because, in a society where George Zimmerman, according to the legal process, did not murder Trayvon Martin, the word has no meaning.)

So, to sum up: If you’re tolerating me, don’t do me any favors. If you’re intolerant of any violation of the inherent worth and dignity of every living creature, good for you.