Monday, June 11, 2007

Does "Tolerance" Have Four Letters?

Last week, I wrote a post advocating greater tolerance. I had forgotten at the time that this concept is considered bad by a certain subsection of conservative Christians. For example, when I was shopping this past weekend, I saw a license plate. The plate itself said "God Created" in that way that license plates do, with an "8" for the syllable "-ate," and so forth. The license plate frame around this plate had the motto "Truth not tolerance!" (italics in the original)

I thought that I had blogged about this phenomenon some time ago, but can't seem to find it (if someone can point me in the right direction with a comment, I'll make the appropriate edit), but it seems to me that some people greatly misunderstand what the word "tolerance" actually means. So, dictionary.com to the rescue:
  1. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.
  2. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own.
  3. interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one's own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.*
A common thread to all three of these definitions is the idea that there are viewpoints with with people do not agree. Let's assume for the sake of argument that I agree with the license plate owner: God created everything. (Actually, I do, agree with that! But for the sake of argument, I'm reading between the lines a bit to guess that the owner of the license plate believes in a narrow definition of "creation," i.e., "God created the world ex nihilo in six 24-hour days, without the need for Darwinian evolution, and that human kind appeared on the sixth day. Any theory that suggests that the Earth is millions of years old is contrary to the idea of divine creation.") To "tolerate" another view (i.e., "the Earth is millions of years old") is, according to definitions 1 and 2, merely to "permit" the opposing viewpoint, or the person holding that opposing viewpoint, to continue to exist. We are to treat them "fairly," and (to the degree it is possible for any human to do so) be "objective" in our dealings with them. I am free to disagree with that person however strongly I like. But if I have failed to persuade that person that my viewpoint is the correct one, I do not punish that person in any way. I "tolerate" it. I see no reason why any sane person should have a problem with "tolerance" defined in this way.

We do have the third definition here, though. I can certainly see why the hypothetical creationist might not wish to take an "interest in and concern for" the idea that the world is actually millions of years old. They (so they suppose) know the truth already. Why should this contradictory idea interest them? By this definition, I suppose that people such as the conservative license plate owner are safe in the "truth not tolerance" mantra.

But I'm not at all confident that this is what they're thinking. I'm reminded of the statement by Polish Vice-minister of education MirosÅ‚aw Orzechowski, who infamously said "We want a school without lies – such as the theory of evolution, soulless zygotes... We will also manage without tolerance". One can't argue that he's taken no interest. This was an active campaign against teaching these theories in school. Although the Polish context is rather different than ours, it seems pretty clear that movements such as the one in Kansas not that long ago (and which is a continuing controversy even now) are intended to remove this idea entirely from the classroom. This flies right in the face of definitions 1 and 2 of "tolerance." Teachers who insist on teaching this viewpoint would lose their jobs!

As I mentioned last time, it's one thing to withdraw from the community of those with whom you disagree. Sometimes, it's the only acceptable option. But fighting to punish people for nothing more dangerous than holding a disagreeable opinion should not be acceptable. Conservatives often mock people who advocate tolerance in this way: "You can tolerate anything except people who are intolerant." They seem to think that by pointing out a logical fallacy, the whole concept of "tolerance" can safely be dismissed. But as Slacktivist pointed out, "Well, yeah. And also, duh. Antonyms are incompatible. Opposites are opposed. That's not a particularly noteworthy observation, so I've always been baffled as to why this bit of adolescent wordplay was regarded as meaningful." Most people, even liberals (although I grant not all) believe that there is such a thing as "truth" out there. We may well have differing interpretations of what the "truth" is, but most people believe that there is an objective reality. The concept of "tolerance" is in no way opposed to this. All "tolerance" requires is that we recognize that not everyone sees "truth" in the same way, and that we continue to allow them to hold their own beliefs undisturbed. Why is that such a hard thing for some people to accept?


*(I should note that there are four other dictionary.com definitions on the linked page, but none of these appear germane to this discussion. The link also provides definitions from other dictionaries, some of which are indeed relevant, but similar enough that I won't quote them here.)

1 comment:

  1. I think there are many who cannot reconcile the idea that Christians are called to evangelise with the idea that we might also be tolerant of others while doing so. I admit, it's probably easier to get up in someone's face and tell her that she's wrong and you're right than it is to listen to what she actually has to say. But then, you're also a lot more likely to earn her respect (and maybe even her interest in what you believe) if you take the second approach.

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