On Tolerance

The other day I was thinking–thinking about “tolerance.” That most elusive of desirable human traits is the key to so many conflicts between people.

What is tolerance, anyway? We can start with a dictionary definition[*1] :

The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.

If you dig further into the definitions[*2] , you find more technical usages of the term describing the acceptable deviation from a norm–mechanical tolerances, or medical tolerance (the ability of the body to withstand an insult).

The problem with tolerance as it relates to human behavior is that it always seems to be the other person who needs to be “more tolerant.” You rarely hear someone saying “gee, I need to be more tolerant.” When they do, it’s usually a rhetorical club which really means “you’re being really really mean and nasty but see how much better a person I am than you by graciously allowing your contemptible behavior to continue.”

It’s easy to be “tolerant” of those in your own group (tribe, gang, ethnic group, etc.). It’s manifestly more difficult to be tolerant of other groups. They’re so . . . so . . . so different, don’t you see?

The reason why tolerance is a virtue is not because it is so common among humans, but because it is so rare. Once a person settles on a belief system and a set of behaviors, it is the most natural thing in the world for that person to want to convince his or her fellow human beings that his or her way is “right.” How intolerant is that? The fundamental and enduring assumption is that I know better than you, and I’m not being intolerant, I’m just “helping” you by showing you the error of your ways.

The origins of numerous wars throughout human history are found in this kind of “help.”

As with so many human traits, tolerance by itself can be taken to such an extreme that it causes the very problem it attempts to prevent. So, what counterbalances tolerance?

I would submit that it is found in the simple phrase: Mind Your Own Business. The Bible puts it as[*3] :

Stop judging others, and you will not be judged. For others will treat you as you treat them. Whatever measure you use in judging others, it will be used to measure how you are judged. And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying, `Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log from your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

There’s a reason why it’s called “The Golden Rule.” You don’t have to be a practicing Christian, or religious at all, to understand “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Most (or should I say “all?”) people fail to consistently apply the Golden Rule in their daily lives. In general, those people who do apply it most consistently tend, oddly enough, to be quite popular people with whom many others wish to associate. The Golden Rule is a high standard. But those who shout “tolerance! tolerance!” without being willing to themselves tolerate those who lead their lives differently are in no position to claim a moral high ground.

I think of all of the intolerance in the world today–from Islamic extremists, to today’s American Left, to the few remaining Christian fundamentalists, and wonder at what point does a person, a group, a country, a religion forfeit its expectation of tolerance from those outside the group, country, religion?

It seems to me that a clear dividing line comes when the person/group/country/religion turns from worrying about how it behaves internally to worrying about how others behave. This is a danger zone. The danger becomes critical when talk turns to action. An old libertarian saying goes “your right to swing your arms ends where my nose begins.” You are free to worry to your heart’s content about whether or not I’m living my life the right way, and you’re free to try to convince me through argument that I should change. But once argument becomes coercion, tolerance becomes oppression.

Tolerance becomes intolerance the instant that argument becomes action. So then you have the contradiction of using that most intolerant of institutions–the government–to “enforce tolerance.”

There is no solution here, there’s only the struggle. And so it goes.