There are a lot of misused words in our world today, but perhaps none is more misused than the word “tolerance”. Dictionary.com defines ‘tolerance’ as “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Today we are told to “tolerate” everything, from political views to lifestyle choices, which is not a bad thing at all, so long as those who are asking actually mean ‘tolerate’. The problem comes when use the word “tolerate” when what we actually mean to say is ‘accept’. In fact tolerance, which would require two disagreeing parties to co-exist in the same space together, is so very often confused with ‘acceptance’, which would require both parties to come to agreement in order to exist in the same space, that our culture is beginning to show signs of the negative consequences of this word exchange. Let me give you just a few examples.
To live in a way that allows for disagreement is a most difficult task in the very public sphere of politics. One of the most fascinating social trends in the last decade is the growing polarization of political affiliation in the U.S. Even 10 years ago it was possible to stand politically with the Democratic party and agree with a Republican on at least a couple of issues. Today, that stance is nearly impossible. The graph below from people-press.org shows the this growing polarization as it is progressing and the results are not good. Because opposing political parties have more and more trouble agreeing, a bi-partisan government, like we have now, is almost never able to pass legislation. More often, republicans and democrats spend their time finding the best way to dismantle the other sides activities rather than actively looking for places of agreement so they can move forward. What might happen next from all of this? Well, so far its hard to tell, but we have to know that this growing trend will have consequences. I know for me personally I find myself more and more often running from the petty and often time-wasting conversations of our political representatives. This happens not because I don’t want to have the conversations, but instead because I see more being done to improve our world outside the world of politics, and I would rather spend my time making a difference there.
A couple months ago my alma mater made national headlines when the president decided to restrict the school’s statement of belief to exclude beliefs about the origins of the universe that he knew were held by some of the faculty of the school. While his motives were clearly aimed toward removing certain faculty, the move illuminates a stance that many institutions of higher learning are choosing to make. More and more often schools are making institution-wide polarizing decisions brought on by outside political pressures. Whether that outside political force is a right wing values-driven organization, or a left-wing watchdog website, when it affects the motivations and culture of an educational institution, it can confuse the purpose behind education for the students enrolled. Aristotle said in his Metaphysics that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Now? We might say “It is the mark of an educated mind to learn what is acceptable, and not deviate from it.” Our educational institutions were never meant to train us to believe a pre-established list of facts about the world, instead they were designed to open us up to the the world, to help us see the things around us in a fuller, more realistic way. If we turn our institutions of education into empires of similitude we may just find ourselves in grave danger of raising a generation of robots.
It has been said that we owe our human progress to a growing ability to civilize ourselves into a world of people who can co-exist without wars and violence, crime, or hate. And while we could debate for a long time as to whether we are actually accomplishing this goal, we might all agree that a move toward peace in this way could be as close as we could come to defining the goal of human progress. We make a major mistake then, when we confuse this quest for peace, as a quest for agreement. It is not our agreement on all the issues that make us more peaceful, no that is reserved for all the totalitarian societies in every futuristic science fiction film ever made or book ever written, instead our quest for peace here and now is found in how well we disagree. Speaking to this topic, I was reading a helpful article the other day that expressed this distinction well:
“Tolerance has segued into meanings of nonjudgmentalism, recognition, acceptance, even implicitly, affirmation and respect. It has frequently slipped into a vague indifference – “you do what you like” type attitude to the people you live amongst.
What has been lost is J.S. Mill’s understanding that tolerance is crucial to freedom. That tolerance is about putting up with views and opinions you may deeply disagree with; tolerance does not require abdicating judgement, only the firm belief that it is in the cut and thrust of debate that there is the best chance of truth.” – Madeleine Bunting
If we are to truly take steps forward in our conversations, whether in person, online, or in the public square, we must be willing to open ourselves up to the possibility that we might, in fact, be wrong. To stand in pursuit of truth, then, cannot mean that we hold to a belief that we alone are the only right ones in the universe. Instead, if we are to pursue together what is right and true and good, we must be willing to have the hard conversations, suspend the ‘status quo’, and start listening well to our neighbor, whomever he or she may be.
Image used under creative commons license courtesy of Luc De Leeuw: http://bit.ly/1p8mWIi