On Toleration

In this day of increasing intolerance it behooves us to come to grips with the notion of tolerance and ask ourselves just how much outrage should be tolerated. In an attempt to answer this question I will begin with an interesting comment in Michael Walzer’s book from which I stole the title for this post: On Toleration. Walzer says, in part:

“Toleration itself is often underestimated, as if it is the least we can do for our fellows, the most minimal of their entitlements. In fact, tolerance (the attitude) takes many different forms, and toleration (the practice) can be arranged in different ways. Even the most grudging forms and precarious arrangements are very good things, sufficiently rare in human history that they require not only practical but also theoretical appreciation. . . .[Toleration] sustains life itself, because persecution is often to the death, and it also sustains common lives, the different communities in which we live. Toleration makes difference possible; difference makes toleration necessary.”

The problem is, of course, we have a leader who preaches the opposite of toleration, a man who harangues and berates difference and seeks to raise outrage to a fever pitch. We must ask how much of what is said in support of breeding hatred is to be tolerated. To what extent is our freedom of speech a right to be protected above all others? Is one’s right to free speech license to spread hatred and rouse the rabble to violence? I suspect not, though I realize that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know just where to draw the line.

The same is true for toleration in general. As Walzer notes, it is a good thing. Indeed, in a democracy it is an essential thing. In a democracy difference must be tolerated because all voices need to be heard and all ways of life must be protected. Or must they? Must we tolerate the behavior of a man in the theater who shouts “fire” just for a laugh? Must we tolerate the violence of an athlete who beats his wife? Again, where do we draw the line?

I might suggest that we draw the line when toleration leads to harm, knowing full well how troublesome that word can be. We must tolerate difference and defend the right of others to be eccentric, even positively strange, to the point where that behavior leads to harm to another person — or an animal. No further.

Walzer suggests a broader criterion, namely, allowing individuals to coexist in peace. But please note that he also suggests limits:

“To argue that different groups and/or individuals should be allowed to coexist in peace is not to argue that every actual or imaginable difference should be tolerated.”

In a word, there are some things that simply should not be tolerated. The problem is to decide in each case which it is to be, fully realizing that allowing folks to coexist in peace rules out any harmful, or potentially harmful, treatment toward others.

It is often noted that today’s youth should be praised for their tolerance, for the willingness of the young to put up with almost anything. Old folks like me complain about the noise from a passing car or a crying baby in a crowded restaurant. The young would probably not even notice. Is this tolerance I wonder? Or is it mere indifference, or even obliviousness? Are the young so wrapped up in themselves that they simply don’t notice the things that bother many others? There is an important difference here, but this difference, among so many others, must also be tolerated. It’s what makes the world go ’round. It is what makes a democracy strong. But when tolerance shades off into indifference we need to pause, because it means that we have stopped thinking about those things that ought NOT to be tolerated.

A leader who stands up before an adoring crowd and berates others because of their look, the color of their skin, their religious affiliation, or their immigrant status is no leader for a country that calls itself a democracy. He, or she, is the epitome of intolerance and an example of the type who simply doesn’t know where the line is to be drawn. And, as I suggest, it must be drawn when tolerance leads to the harming of others, or the determination to plant within the hearts and minds of the listeners a hatred of those who are different from themselves, a hatred that can easily lead to violence. Speech and behavior of all types must be not only allowed but even defended in a democratic society. But when speech or behavior cross the line then toleration ceases to be a good thing. It amounts to callous indifference to the pain and suffering of others, something that should never be tolerated.