Thoughts on “Tolerance”

On three completly unrelated occasions recently I have been in a discussion with people who have brought up various version of the same question:“If [so-and-so group] was more tolerant of [group discriminated against], would this change your opinion of [first group]?”.

Keep in mind these are three completely separate people, completely separate discussions, and as far as I know, the three people do not know each other at all.

Now I’d like to give a bit of background on the three topics, although the specific topics themselves are not relevant ot the point I wish to make.
The first discussion was on another blog a couple of months ago. I don’t remember exactly which blog, or the exact wording of his question, but it was essentially: “If christians were more tolerant of non-christians would this change your views towards christianity?”
The second discussion was about Proposition 8, and the question was: “If christians were more tolerant of gays would this change your views towards the church?”
And the third was surprisingly not related to christianity, although in my experience they seem to use the term “tolerance” more than other groups, in this case it was in a debate with somebody about race to which he said something along the lines of: “If southern whites had been more tolerant of blacks would this change your views towards ‘red-necks’?”

My guess is that these people were trying to make the points that even if a group has a history of something, that I should not be so quick to judge the individual members of that group, and that my judgment of these groups is as intolerant as the acts for which I am judging them. Although there is a chance I totally missed the point they wanted to make, since I find it hard to see eye to eye with people of strong religious faith or strong racist beliefs, so if I missed the point they were attempting to make I guess I’ll just have to admit my mistake.

Now in each case my first gut reaction was that these questions were ridiculous, particularly the third one, because they were based on fantasy and not the reality of the world we live in.

But I also tried to give each person the benefit of the doubt, and think about their question as a serious proposition, and in each case there is certainly part of me that feels, yes if those groups were more tolerant of others it would change my opinion of them.

But the more I think about the wording of their questions, the less I agree with their idea. And it comes down to one word they all usedP: “tolerate”.

Now perhaps I am alone in this, but to me, tolerance has a negative conotation that acceptance does not. Though both may be thought of as the same by many, at least in my experience tolerance implies “putting up with something” where acceptance does not.
For an simple example, if I tolerate that my wife chews with her mouth open (which she does not) it implies that it bugs me, but that I deal with. If I accept that she does, it implies that it does not bug me, even if it’s not a choice I would make for myself.

To tolerate something in my view implies that you look down on the person for some reason, but you’re willing to look past that and be civil. It implies that the person doing the tolerating believes they are somehow “better” than the person they are tolerating. This is not an improvement, it’s just hiding your feelings to be politically correct or to “get along”. Acceptance is what we should strive for, not toleration.

So in the end, when somebody asks “If [so-and-so group] was more tolerant of [group discriminated against], would this change your opinion of [first group]?”, my reaction is simply no. Just because you’re able to hide your true feelings does not absolve you from the biogotry accosiated with those feelings.


About Rodibidably

Jeff Randall is a frequent volunteer for free-thought organizations, including the Center For Inquiry – DC. Having been blogging since January 2008, he decided that a community of bloggers would be an interesting new experience (or at the very least a fun way to annoy his friends into reading his posts more frequently). Since finding out about about the existence of, and then joining, the atheist/skeptic community in 2007 he has been committed to community activism, critical thinking in all aspects of life, science, reason, and a fostering a secular society.
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