August 30, 2004


Separate and Not Equal: The Vexing Virtue

Tolerance. The word turns up everywhere these days: Heads of State promote tolerance, religious groups practice tolerance, educators in universities and classrooms around the world preach the importance of religious and moral tolerance. Despite whom it is practicing or preaching tolerance, the effect is the same: individuals and groups alike achieve a moral superiority by being tolerant.

The concept of tolerance as a virtue is imbedded within our culture: the Old Testament story of obstinate, intolerant Jonah illustrates the virtue of tolerance. Jonah’s blind conviction that only the Jews deserve God’s forgiveness causes him to defy Yahweh’s order to go to Niveveh and tell the people to clean up their act; Jonah’s intolerance lands him in the belly of a whale for three days, and thus the next time Yahweh tells him to go to Niveveh he obeys. When the people of Niveveh repent, Jonah is furious – he had wished for the wrath of God to destroy those pagans. The story of Jonah clearly exemplifies the evils of intolerance.

In Ayn Rand’s enduring novel, The Fountainhead, Dominique Francon claims, ”…we must have tolerance for the opinions of others, because tolerance is the greatest virtue….” According to The Random House College Dictionary tolerance is ”a fair and objective attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, or the like, differ from one’s own.”; The old English Dictionary defines it as ”the disposition to be patient with or indulgent to the opinions or practices of others; freedom from bigotry or undue severity in judging the conduct of others….”

Case closed: tolerance is a positive virtue.

Or it is not?

Before one denounces intolerance, however, one first needs to examine the qualities it shares with tolerance, for doesn’t tolerance, just like intolerance, set limits, make judgements, and rather than reconcile people, set them apart? When a group of individuals, whether it is agroup bound by a common religion or a shared ideology, boasts that they are tolerant of another group which coexists within society, they are in no way equating themselves with the tolerated group; rather, they are pronouncing themselves as superior to the tolerated group, for when we tolerate something aren’t we inadvertently saying that we do not agree with it, that we do not approve of it, but nevertheless, we will let it coexist alongside of us?

Like the rings imbedded within a tree’s trunk which one can only see by slicing the trunk open, it’s only by dissecting the concept of tolerance that one becomes aware of the magnitude of meanings nestled within it. In many contexts (regarding abortion, religion, and race) the word ”tolerance” connotes disrespect and often contempt to those being tolerated; to tolerate something, whether it is a person, a group, or a behavior, implies that it is somewhat flawed, somewhat imperfect.

Flawed or imperfect that is, in so much as it disagrees with one’s own values and beliefs. The concept of tolerance assumes that one can tell the good from the bad, and in doing so, it creates and promotes rival conceptions.

Moreover, tolerance denies groups equal standing within society, for the implications of the word are subconscious and unspoken: we are separate and not equal. Therefore, rather than creating bonds of solidarity, the concept of tolerance forbids solidarity by denying equality, and in doing so it promotes a relationship comprising the dominant and the dominated.

Although the implicit idea behind the concept of tolerance is that by allowing both morally and religiously conflicting groups to exist alongside one another in society, they will come to discover how much they have in common with one another, tolerance instead allows groups and individuals alike to simply acknowledge differences rather than to examine and explore them. In his article, ”The Limits of Tolerance”, Roger Wilkins claims that he is presently ”trying to find a little tolerance for the white culturally disadvantaged –people whose human empathy has been pinched and diminished by the brutal culture in which they thrive.” Wilkins explains that back in the ’30s and ’40s ”Mere toleration [of blacks] was a poor substitute for full rights of citizenship” and implies throughout the article that the same holds true for today. Thus, instead of confronting bigotry and tackling prejudice, it is tolerance which promotes the two, in as far as it not only brings to attention the incompatible moral and religious views which exist, but it also, both tacitly and overtly, repudiates those who are religiously and ideologically different.

The difficulty with the concept of tolerance is not so much in enforcing it as it is in recognizing that it doesn’t destroy barriers, but instead emphasizes them, that it doesn’t quell animosity, but feeds it. In his article ”The Virtues of Toleration”, John Gray, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and Stanahan Distinguished Research Fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green, Ohio, argues that toleration is unavoidably and inherently judgmental. When we tolerate a practice, a belief, or a character trait, we let something be that we judge to be undesirable, false, or at least inferior; our toleration expresses the conviction that, despite its badness, the object of toleration should be left alone. This is in truth the very idea of toleration, as it is practiced in things great and small. So it is that our tolerance of our friend’s vices makes them no less vices in our eyes: rather, our tolerance presupposes that they are vices…

Toleration is not, then, an expression of doubt about our ability to tell the good from the bad; it is evidence of our confidence that we have that ability.

The need for a concept which forbids individuals and groups from both tacitly and overtly judging others clearly exists: perhaps the solution lies in practicing and preaching neutrality rather than advocating tolerance.

Tolerance: A virtue or an evil?

Although the concept of tolerance attempts to open doors, it appears to close them, by denying individuals and groups alike freedom and equal opportunities. It’s worth noting that the ancient Hebrew language, which was revived during the last century and therefore had to adopt neologisms, defines ”tolerance” in exactly the same manner that the word ”tolerate”, which means to endure, to suffer, is defined (”Lisbol-Sevel-Sovlanut”). The Hebrew language shares this definition with a variety of other languages and cultures.

Thus, despite what individuals desire to believe, tolerance does not include appreciation and respect for differences, unless of course one argues that putting up with something is synonymous with appreciating it. Shouldn’t we spend less time voicing what we will and will not tolerate and examine differences as a means of accepting them, rather than hiding behind a concept which in an attempt to accept diversity and reconcile people, instead pronounces them as inferior and thus segregates them?

As it is used today, ”tolerance” emerges as a ”politically correct” term in that like all politically terms, it silences anyone whose ideas are incongruent with one’s own. Instead of controlling extremisms, tolerance fuels it, for it allows one to practice an old principle, that is discrimination, in a new guise. As individuals who possess our own view points of morality and ethics, society demands that we must be committed to truth and faith, but our commitment must be tempered with humility and toleration for other viewpoints; that we must be passionate, but not arrogant; that we can’t pass judgement on those whose convictions conflict with our own. Tolerance, however, feeds our passion as well as our arrogance.

Instead of allowing us to celebrate our differences, as perhaps neutrality would, tolerance allows us to emphasize them. Furthermore, tolerance allows us to pass judgements on others not only with assurance, but publicly, as though we possess nothing to hide. The idea of tolerance legitimizes our prejudices and in doing so it destroys the real mission of a truly democratic society: equality for all people, brotherhood, and freedom.