May 11, 2011

Deconstructing tolerance


Should tolerance be tolerated?

Tolerance is not a virtue, and it should not be promoted as such.

The word tolerance is widely used. It is ascribed a positive meaning. Politicians urge us to be tolerant towards minorities. Educators teach us to be tolerant towards the other. The press is full of references to the need to display tolerance when faced with individuals or groups espousing a different view or holding a different religious belief. Even the United Nations has decreed “an international day for Tolerance.”

The word tolerance has become a well-established concept denoting a virtue as widely entrenched as free-speech, equality under the law, etc.

We should be careful, though. The word tolerance means to bear, or to bear with. If I tolerate something or someone, I basically say that I am ready to bear with its or his/her presence or opinions.

The act of toleration entails an effort on my part to desist from conveying my objection to the existence of a phenomenon, which I find difficult to bear.

Tolerance denotes an unequal relationship. The subject tolerating is inherently not equal to the object being tolerated. If I tolerate you, I actually say that I am above you and am prepared, albeit unwillingly, to bear with your presence or with your practices or opinions; hardly an attitude that would justify a government or any official authority promoting tolerance as a virtue.

One cannot tolerate an equal being. True equality entails respect, not toleration. To respect the other as a distinctive person cannot denote a tolerant attitude towards him. This is the true meaning of equality: diversity existing in a mutually-respectful socio-legal setting.

A tolerant attitude entails the bestowing of a favour, not the granting of a right.

The aim of a free society should not be to delineate a framework within which people tolerate each other’s views, or tolerate each other’s different background. A free society is one where an individual enjoys freedom under the law and respect within society.

Tolerance as an idea is alien to a free society. To be sure, tolerance was first used as a political and legal concept in the seventeenth century. It was employed, then and in subsequent centuries, in reference, for instance, to the existence of religious beliefs that were distinct from the established religion. The word tolerance, in that context, entailed an attitudinal change whereby a religion that had previously not been accepted was either conceptually or legally elevated to the level of a tolerated belief. The idea behind it was clear. The other religion would be tolerated, its existence would be secure, but as a favour bestowed by the established authority in the land, not as right denoting equality and mutual respect.

Tolerance may have been an enlightening idea in the context of the prevailing conditions in the early modern period. It is certainly not in the twenty first century. Tolerance means what it says: a superior authority tolerating the existence and beliefs of a different, unequal entity. What we need is to find a concept, which reflects the ideal of mutual respect. Tolerance does not.

by Yoav J. Tenembaum