What do we mean by “tolerance”?

“I like him personally; we have a different view on this.”

I heard this on NPR today. A congressman said it about another congressman, each of whom was interviewed about the situation between the US and Iran. It’s a great example of classical tolerance: egalitarianism toward persons, and elitism toward ideas. Congressman A made a neat distinction between Congressman B and Congressman B’s view. He liked the man; he didn’t like the man’s view.

Classical tolerance does not necessarily mean that we like everyone, but it does mean that we respect everyone. It requires that we distinguish between the person and the person’s ideas and behaviors. People should be respected; some ideas and behaviors shouldn’t be. It’s that simple.

I might think that your opinion about the use of fake Christmas trees is asinine and even dangerous to society. That doesn’t mean that I should hate you. I should fight your idea, not you. I might be disgusted by the way you dress all the neighborhood cats in kilts and sporrans. That doesn’t mean that I should mistreat you. I should speak out against your behavior, not you.

Today’s ‘tolerance’ typically blends the person together with his ideas and behaviors:

  • Accepting him means that we accept his behavior.
  • Her opinion should be scoffed at, so she should be scoffed at.
  • Since we love her, we should love all that she stands for.
  • His views are deplorable, so he’s deplorable.

This is rarely thought through and articulated; it just happens automatically and thoughtlessly. Ironically and sadly, a great deal of mistreatment of people and confusion of the issues can be chalked up to a warped definition of ‘tolerance’.

It’s refreshing to see classical tolerance at work, especially in today’s politics. It has the effect of drawing people in, rather than turning them off. It also is a far better recipe for problem solving. Only classical tolerance can take us in the right direction.

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