Is Tolerance a Virtue?
By Dr Yoav J. Tenembaum firstname.lastname@example.org
The word tolerance is widely used in liberal democracies. 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.
A tolerant society is an objective sought after by anyone who believes in
the values of parliamentary democracy. A tolerant individual is attributed
with virtuous qualities.
To be sure, liberal political philosophers used the term tolerance in a
positive vein, from the 17th century onwards. Laws aimed at granting legal
rights to minorities or religious groups were enacted containing the word
tolerance or toleration in the 19th century. Today, the word tolerance has
become a well-established concept denoting a virtue as widely entrenched as
free-speech, equality under the law, etc.
The question we must ask is whether we have been using the word tolerance
fully cognizant of its meaning and whether we have applied it correctly to
reflect what we really wish to convey?
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 it or him.
I can tolerate a bad odour. I can tolerate a noisy neighbour. 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.
The phenomenon as such is ascribed by me a negative attribute. A bad odour
or a noisy neighbour is deemed by me to be an objectionable phenomenon. By
tolerating either of them, I am not transforming the bad odour or the noisy
neighbour into positive phenomena. Let's be honest: I don't have a different
taste when it comes to bad odours. I simply dislike it and wish that it
disappear, if at all possible. I don't respect the noisy neighbour. I would
rather have him stop at once the noise he is making so I can live in peace.
To try to eliminate the bad odour or take reasonable action in order for the
noisy neighbour to stop bothering me would most probably not be considered
an intolerant act by most people. Tolerating either would not be deemed, on
the other hand, a laudable or virtuous act.
Now, let's try to apply the word tolerance in reference to a person who is
law-abiding and holds a legally acceptable different view from my own. I may
have a strong view, which is diametrically opposed to his view. Quite
candidly, I may decide to tolerate his view. By so doing, I would be
attributing to it a negative characteristic. I would apply the same attitude
to his view as to the bad odour or noisy neighbour. Thus, to try to take
action in order to make his view disappear would be considered an intolerant
act. To tolerate his view the way I would a bad odour or a noisy neighbour,
could hardly be considered laudable or vitruous.
The same logic would obtain with regard to a religious group different from
my own, which is law-abiding and practices its religion in a peaceful, legal
manner; indeed, to any political, racial or ethnic minority which is
Tolerance denotes an unequal relationship. The subject tolerating is
inherently not equal to the object being tolerated. If I tolerate you, I
essentially say that I am above you and am prepared, albeit unwillingly, to
bear with your presence or with your practices or opinions. That may be true
in the case of an individual who is ready to tolerate the other. However,
this attitude by such an individual, though empirically true, is hardly a
virtue. Certainly, the fact that an individual, in reality, may merely
tolerate the other or his opinion does not 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 is hardly to
tolerate him. This is the true meaning of equality: diversity existing in a
mutually-respectful socio-legal setting. Diversity existing in a tolerant
society, on the other hand, is akin to the person having to put up with a
bad odour or a noisy neigbour, but in a much wider context. - hardly the
vision entertained by those who sincerely speak of tolerance.
The danger with tolerance, as it is widely used and acted upon in liberal
democracies, is that it can lead, paradoxically, to the acceptance of
individuals or groups bent on destroying the foundations of democratic
systems. We have seen such cases with regard to political parties or
subversive religious groups that have been treated in a liberal manner under
the guise of tolerance. This is what may be called 'the tolerance paradox.'
A tolerant attitude entails the bestowing of a favour, not the granting of a
right. The question we should ask ourselves is whether we would ever wish a
parliament to enact laws according to us, as individuals and as part of a
collective entity, a permission to pursue certain actions construed as a
favour rather than a right? Indeed, would we ever wish anyone to listen to
our views and accept us the way we are simply because he is kind enough to