What is tolerance? There’s widespread confusion. While confusion abounds in general, there is one aspect of tolerance to which people seem to be entirely oblivious – tolerance can sometimes be cruel. Sounds a bit counterintuitive, right? Let me explain…
As I’ve written before, tolerance is the act of allowing people to hold different views from our own. However, increasingly our modern culture is inflating tolerance from this standard understanding into a sort of act of promotion. Instead of merely respecting difference of opinion, people are gradually expected to also promote the differences of others. There is a sort of soft tyranny at work here – we’re expected to promote ideas with which we do not agree, and this seems most egregious.
If all people are to be offered tolerance, then why are only some people forced to endorse the views of others while these people stand by (expecting these endorsements) without they themselves endorsing opposing views with which they do not agree? This seems extremely selective and true tolerance does not work this way. If one wants tolerance, one should also be willing to give it. If one’s not willing to be tolerant, one should not be forcing it, let alone expecting it.
The other side of the coin is also difficult to navigate. To what levels should we take tolerance? Where do we draw the line? There must lines, no? There are some things which we should not tolerate. The legal system does a fairly adequate though imperfect job of drawing that line. We do not tolerate thieves, murderers, rapists, etc. There are many things civil society cannot and should not tolerate.
There is one principle that’s important to keep in mind – all people are made in the image of God and have intrinsic value, and as such, should be respected. Tolerance isn’t as much directed at people necessarily, but rather their opinions and actions. In principle, we respect the right for people to have their own opinions and we respect their right to their own actions. However, as you might imagine, there are going to be plenty of caveats to accompany that sentiment.
The most fundamental attitude within tolerance is respect. And respect can rightfully be seen as an epistemic virtue. But is it the greatest virtue? Perhaps not. While respect is important, there is something much more fundamental and panoptic – love. The reason why love is the greatest of virtues is that it is the fundamental basis on which all others can exist. Without love, there’s really no such thing as respect.
Love is the cornerstone of all other virtues. Thus, tolerance is not a blanket expectation without consideration for love. At the end of the day, whether tolerance is granted or withheld, for us to be in proper moral standing, our most virtuous reason for either must be love.
We cannot tolerate enemies attacking with the intent of wiping out life because we love the people whom the enemies are trying to kill. This helps to demonstrate that tolerance is not the greatest of virtues that people seem to make it out to be in our modern popular culture.
Tolerance/respect is a virtue but love is an even greater virtue. And sometimes, tolerance stands in direct opposition to the more fundamental virtue, which is love. Tolerance is based on the respect of others’ views and actions that are different from your own. True love is selfless and its aim is the good of others. Sometimes these two are in tension. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the family dynamic.
As soon as kids turn 18, they are considered adults and are offered freedoms of behaving as they wish. However, no rational and loving parents would ever provide all freedoms with no limits to a teenager. Suppose the teen decided to start doing drugs. Should the parents tolerate the freedom of their kids to do drugs? If tolerance is a blanket term with no limitations, it would be wrong of the parents to intervene and try to coerce their child to stop doing drugs. It’s clear that tolerance is not an absolute. Loving parents would do precisely the opposite of tolerating – stop the young adult from doing something harmful to himself. Parents should not tolerate drugs!
When we’re speaking about subjective preferences that have no extension into the objective world, such as color, there’s plenty of room to have our own opinions and respect those of others. The tension arises when people expect their views of objective reality to be tolerated at all cost, sometimes even against the tide of evidence and rational thought. Many go even further and not only expect those views to be tolerated but also celebrated.
As is hopefully clear from the perspective of those being pressured to accept and celebrate things with which they do not agree, this sort of “tolerance” starts becoming oppressive and begins to look a lot more like the persecution of those who differ.
One might stop and ask, ‘where is there the tolerance of those being pressured to accept opposing views?’ Should they not be offered tolerance? After all, tolerance is a two-way street – I tolerate you and you tolerate me. If tolerance is touted as a morally supreme ideal, why then is it not reciprocated? As often happens in today’s world, tolerance is used as a weapon to bash those who disagree with you. And this is cruel!
Since people are often their own worst enemies and unwittingly destroy themselves in any number of ways, sometimes tolerance can easily be seen as a form of cruelty, not a virtue – you know something is harmful to someone and you allow/tolerate their behavior anyway. Tolerance is neither the greatest of virtues nor is it something to be always granted. Love is more fundamental and often requires us to withhold tolerance for the sake of the individual(s) whom we love, not for our sake but for theirs.
If tolerance trumps love and is sometimes against the best interest of an individual, then it is most certainly also unloving to be tolerant. One may hold certain views and believe them to be incapable of being wrong and also at the same time, harming themselves in the process. For love to be rejected in lieu of our blind allegiance to the dictates of our own hearts is extremely problematic. Tolerance beckons and love is overlooked. Tolerance marches and love is trampled. In this context, tolerance oppresses love. And that is cruel!
The next time we hear about tolerance, we should stop and consider whether there are other more fundamental virtues being sacrificed at the altar of tolerance. There may very well be cruelty involved in tolerating that which is not in the best interest of the individual. And this goes for any number of behaviors that people may think are harmless enough. Sometimes being loving means to be intolerant, and despite how that sounds in popular culture, that is not a bad thing. Despite how we may be maligned by an increasingly ignorant and hostile culture, love beats tolerance every time in every way in any possible world.
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and a current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.