No one ever anointed me with holy oils and pronounced me the Pope of Philosophy or deputized me to define anything, so by the authority granted me by curiosity and observation alone, I define the theme of our times to be tolerance.
Or, more to the point, the lack of it.
How am I using the term “tolerance”? I take the root of toleration to be the act of putting up with others who aren’t like me precisely because they are not the same as me.
I use the words “put up with” purposely. Toleration doesn’t necessarily involve my liking others or agreeing with them. In fact, to simply tolerate someone it seems an essential ingredient is that I don’t especially like or agree with those I’m tolerating, otherwise a more intimate term would be more appropriate to describe the activity.
By and large, one doesn’t “tolerate” friends or loved ones or people with whom one shares a real bond of belief or value — what I have in common with such people binds us. I may not like everything they say or do, but it is more proper to say I overlook those things than tolerate them.
Toleration binds us or allows us to have relationships with people we do not know in the least, or, if we do know them and have little to nothing in common with them, it is the act of letting them have a place in the family, community, town, city, nation or planet without our objecting to their very existence and making that existence extremely difficult. Or, taken to the limit, to make their existence impossible by killing them.
Tolerance involves not interfering with the other even though their appearance, beliefs, styles, and even activities, to a point, may strike me as alien, alienating, bizarre, wrong, repugnant. I decide that I will put up with the other because he is very much “other” than I am.
This need not mean I will associate with him, listen to him, communicate with him at all. It does mean I will recognize that, no matter how “other” he is, he and I still have at least one thing in common: our humanity. He is a person and I am a person. His inherent value as a human being, an autonomous agent that recognizes value, or is capable of it, that is creative, capable of some degree of rationality, a being capable of care and concern — this is what I must recognize and value in the other, even when he doesn’t recognize it in himself or in me (inasmuch as he is not actively hell-bent on my destruction).
I practice tolerance because the other has rights that flow from our shared humanity. He is not less of a human than I am, I am not more of a human than he is. One of us may be better at being human and living up to what being human means, but both of us were born possessing the standard against which we must measure ourselves and the ability to recognize it, even if to a small or slight degree, or in a warped way. We may fail to do that, but our inherent value as people does not go away and may not be ignored.
Tolerance is the decision to live at peace, insofar as this is possible, with the repugnant, irritating, and those we see as very wrong.
What and who must be tolerated varies from person to person as each of us has her beliefs about what is right and good, about race and culture, religion and disbelief, nations, relationships.
I am not saying everything and everyone are tolerable. Toleration is not an absolute thing. We have law precisely because some things are never to be put up with by any community. This is, or can be, a good thing.
In our personal lives, certain things we encounter are not tolerable but are also legal. Sometimes we must choose to remove ourselves from the presence of such things or to say what we will put up with and what we won’t or that we disagree.
But I fear that many people’s ability to tolerate one another now has diminished to the point of being practically non-existent. Why else would people be separating themselves into gated communities or seeking to overturn laws that desegregated the nation? Why are so many fearful to the point they now go armed with handguns everywhere and pass laws allowing them wide latitude in their use against another person? And this in a time when the violent crime rate in our country has fallen drastically for several years?
Why are white separatist groups experiencing a resurgence? Why are people terrified that teens in school might experiment with a different religion than the dominant one? Why protect and favor a community’s dominant religion to the point of intimidating any who believe differently?
Political differences now are enough to split families and destroy friendships. Religious differences are often terribly disruptive to the possibility of any sort of relationship: we even have terrorists motivated by right-wing Islamic fundamentalism killing the “infidels” here; we have right-wing Christian fundamentalists shooting abortion providers and blowing up clinics (and have for years) and using legislation to enforce their puritanical beliefs against all who believe otherwise; we have fundamentalists of all stripes attacking any organization or religion that teaches toleration, acceptance, fraternity, and peaceful coexistence between people with differing points of view.
Though I am being calm and measured in my wording, make no mistake: my personal belief is this nation is on the verge of unraveling like a cheap sweater. I think that, on crucial points and in many places, the will to live together in peace is fading, replaced by conspiracy theories, a desperate fear of this or that group of people, this or that belief, the government. Fear is the mother of hatred. Hatred spawns violence. Violence ushers in death and chaos and more fear. At the moment, people are held in check by social forces and the law; the hatred only erupts into violence in isolated incidents. However, the moment that respect for law is lost or the sway of social institutions fades, rest assured all bets will be off.
I think this is all I have to say for the moment. My thoughts on the subject end here — I provided the solution to the problem in the first half of the writing: tolerance. How one takes an intolerant person and gets them to examine their motives, the consequences of their actions, and change their mind in this paranoid atmosphere, I’ve no idea whatsoever. It’s the thing that escapes me completely.
(originally written 16 July 2013)
Richard Van Ingram