(An apology to regular readers of Common Sense. As of late, I have become increasingly occupied with beginning a campaign. That explains the increasing length of time between posts. This post was originally published here in June 2005. But it came back to mind today after I read another similar essay, and it seems to me to have enough value to repost. So without further ado…)

As our world becomes more connected, the expansion of freedom and self-rule becomes more and more dependent on the concept of tolerance. Increased contact between varying cultures requires an increase in the ability to respect, if not accept, or even embrace, the differences between each other. Indeed, for freedom to flourish, tolerance is a vital necessity. Tolerance is what allows us to engage with each other despite our differences. Tolerance is what allows our societies to progress. Tolerance opens doors to new concepts in art and science and literature. But when we talk about an ideal is ephemeral as tolerance, what exactly are we talking about?

In today’s social and political atmosphere, the word tolerance has achieved fad status, becoming an element of Political Correctness, losing all real meaning as it has morphed into an acceptance of all things good or bad, it is used to excuse behavior that previously may have been considered unacceptable, or, at the other extreme, to condemn without pause any idea or action with the potential to offend but not necessarily harm. Our social shift away from personal accountability, social responsibility, and our trend towards ever-restrictive social and legal policies stem, in part, from our misapplication of the concept of tolerance. Simply speaking, tolerance is the respect we hold for the freedom of others to be as they see fit, regardless of our own personal choices or feelings, so long as that freedom does not impinge on those of others. Tolerance has nothing to do with liking other people, nor is it about agreeing with another’s point of view. Tolerance doesn’t require you to be friends and join hands and sing songs together. The key to tolerance is respect.

What many people fail to grasp is that tolerance is a circular concept, one that must exist as a whole or not at all. What I mean by this is that in order for a diverse society, or various societies, to interact peacefully, it is necessary for the different parts to each accept one another. Whether defined along racial lines, religious doctrines, sexual preferences, or other less obvious classifications, once one group loses their tolerance towards another, the stage is set for distrustfulness, rivalry, and sometimes violence. And when the circle is broken and respect becomes scarce, freedom and self-rule are in jeopardy.

Individual tolerance capabilities are often a mimicked behavior. From our ability to withstand annoying personality characteristics of friends and family to larger forms of tolerance like racial coexistence and religious harmony, our ability to tolerate different ideas and actions frequently mirror those of our parents and communities. That is not to say that we don’t come to develop our own tolerances as we age, but the patterns are imprinted on us early. It is in our childhood years that most of our prejudices are born and nurtured, and as we age, we shape our experiences with different people around our intolerances instead of letting our experiences shape our views. It may be an unconscious conditioning reflex, but it is one we can learn to overcome. Still most people, on an individual level, tend to develop fairly tolerant demeanors towards differences in people, as is necessary unless one enjoys a strife-filled existence. For despite our internal dislikes, we are also taught that tolerance and peaceful coexistence sometimes requires us to suppress our own desires for the sake of getting along. And if we find ourselves in an intolerable situation, we are taught that it is better to leave than to provoke a conflict. It could be said that one’s level of tolerance is an indicator of one’s maturity.

Social tolerance, while also indicative of a society’s maturity, is a somewhat different animal. Unlike individual tolerance abilities, social tolerance is sometimes referred to as mob mentality because of its tendency to amplify the suppressed dislikes of individuals and transform them into legislation. Social tolerance is a reflection not so much of the combined tolerances of its individual parts, but of the focused intolerances of many different groups. The fewer of these group prejudices there are, the more cohesive a society becomes. Social tolerance also plays a large role in creating personal responsibility by developing behavioral expectations that are reinforced by the community through their laws and interactions with each other.

But having a great capacity for tolerance does not mean that all behaviors are acceptable, or that all ideas should be tolerated. Indeed, much like morality and the law, the parameters for tolerable behavior are necessarily wide, since individual beliefs vary so greatly, but they must still contain defined boundaries of propriety. The question then becomes, “Who gets to decide what is or is not tolerable?”

In reality, the choices are not that difficult to make if we focus on what is intolerable. An intolerable act would necessarily be one that causes harm and/or destruction to a person or their property; acts like murder or rape or theft or vandalism. Indeed, we have already expressed our intolerance to these kinds of acts through legislation. Intolerant ideas already include racism or bigotry, despotism, and megalomania, to name a few. And character traits like laziness and deceitfulness, and hypocrisy are often among those viewed with little tolerance, since they foretell a kind of intolerance of their own. We have no duty to respect or tolerate irrational hatred, true criminality (the kind that harms others), slavery or subjugation, people who take but never contribute, or any other idea or action that interferes with another’s right to freedom or social peace. At the same time, we must recognize that race, religion, sexual preference, and other more petty prejudices are not valid expressions of intolerance in and of themselves.

A peaceful society must find a balance between that which it will tolerate and that which it will not. For the success of any free community, whether it is a village or a nation, depends on its tolerances. Too little tolerance of different ideas and actions will result in an autonomous culture, neither progressing our maturing, nor learning about the rest of humanity, while too much will result in a fractured and immobile legislative process. Too much tolerance of abhorrent behavior leads to chaos, fear, and restrictions, while increased intolerance of terrible acts could provide a helpful attitude shift that may eventually lead to fewer occurrences.

American culture is in a strange place in the evolution of its tolerance capabilities. We promote an ideal of freedom, which demands a high level of social tolerance for diverse races, religions, and so on. Yet we enact legislation that aims to discriminate against certain elements of society. We promote the rule of law as acceptable social behavior. Yet we turn a blind eye to those who openly flaunt our laws in our own land and give a wink and a nod to the governments around the world who use corruption to control their citizens. We export the ideals of democracy, freedom, and self-determination around the world. Yet we openly assist regimes that resist all of these ideals. We pretend to respect all religions. Yet we entertain delusions of superiority over anyone whose god concepts differ from our own, until we convince ourselves that our friends and neighbors may actually be our spiritual (and to some people, mortal) enemies. We rally around the streets decrying the violence in the world. Yet we consistently make excuses for the criminal behavior among us. I could go on bu
t you begin to see the pattern.

True tolerance is essential for the progression of society. Tolerance for that which shows the most creative, most ingenious, most inspirational, and most reasonable aspects of humanity should be nurtured and shared, to further to abilities of humanity, to allow us to succeed together as a species. Intolerance for the most vile, most selfish, least productive, and least defensible actions and ideas should also be espoused, to help end these barriers to cooperation and prosperity. One requires the will, education, and dedication of the individual. The other requires the will, strength, and consistency of society. In both cases, the ultimate choice belongs to each and every one of us. Through our actions and our words, through our tolerance, we can make the world a better place by standing together for freedom and against irrational intolerance.