An Open Letter to Mental Health Professionals on the Effects of “Tolerance”

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Dear Mental Health Professional:

I write to you today as an inside-outsider related to your profession. I hold an M.S. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. I make no pretensions to being qualified for mental health counseling, yet I am hardly unaware of the field.

I want to address you on the disastrous mental health correlates associated with today’s understanding of “tolerance.” I want to urge you to speak up as a profession and object to the promotion of tolerance as a virtue. It is no virtue. It stunts individuals’ character growth and it hinders the development of meaningful interpersonal relationships.

It stunts growth by falsely raising individuals’ expectations that they will not experience conflict, and by falsely implying that they cannot face it if it comes.

An Illustration From a Psych Class

I illustrate with a 2012 incident in a Psychology class at my grad school alma mater, the University of Central Florida. Some students had spoken up in class in support of what they considered to be the truth of their Christian beliefs. The professor, Charles Negy, responded with an email to the entire class, saying in part,

Bigots … are convinced their beliefs are correct. For the Christians in my class who argued the validity of Christianity last week, … it seems to have not even occurred to you (I’m directing this comment to those students who manifested such bigotry), as I tried to point out in class tonight, how such bigotry is perceived and experienced by the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the non-believers, and so on, in class, to have to sit and endure the tyranny of the masses (the dominant group, that is, which in this case, are Christians).

Negy did not use the word “tolerance” in his email, but still the message is redolent of tolerance theory. The supposed virtue of tolerance is characterized by persons affecting agreement with others’ views even when their own views differ — as if persons could hold contradictory views as being simultaneously true. It’s characterized further by the insistence that if people do disagree, they keep that to themselves. This is consistent with what Negy called for on this occasion.

Four Points

I note four things here. None of it is particular to the target group’s religion or to Christianity, the topic that had been under discussion. It applies to all relationships and all social groupings.

  1. His use of shame to shape behavior. It’s an inherently other-diminishing approach, especially when applied by an authority figure. The call for tolerance often appears in a shame-based form.
  2. The protective attitude he takes with respect to Muslims, Hindus, etc. He’s treating them as if they will be harmed by some students’ disagreement, and as if they are unable to manage that harm on their own. But every person is destined to encounter disagreement, and should be prepared for it, not shielded from it.
  3. The interpersonal hiding his approach is designed to encourage. Christians are shamed into hiding their core convictions. Other religious believers, and non-believers are bound to get the message as well. Either they will learn by example that they must hide their own central beliefs, or they will take advantage of the professor’s example to shame their fellow students into silence. Neither approach is conducive to real relationships between real people being genuinely open with one another.
  4. The acting-as-if the professor imposes upon the students. Christians are told to act as if they don’t hold their beliefs as true. Others are implicitly encouraged to do the same.

Peacekeeping vs. Peacemaking

There is a better approach to handling conflict. Though you might use other language in your practice, undoubtedly you are aware of the distinction between the peacekeeper and the peacemaker. The peacekeeper is the enabler, the one who manages conflict by diverting it, hiding it, distracting it, or otherwise avoiding it. The peacemaker is the one who brings herself or himself fully into the conflict as a whole, entire person — or encourages others to do the same, if in a mediator’s role — and seeks to lead the relationship toward integrity and peace at the same time.

Though the peacemaking approach does not always succeed in bring conflict to a halt, we know it’s usually the best first approach to attempt. Peacekeeping is never our first advice — not unless there is immediate threat of lasting physical and/or emotional harm.

Now, Dr. Negy seems to imply that the non-Christian students in that classroom would be harmed to that degree by Christians communicating they think their beliefs are correct. Surely, though, he cannot think Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and non-believers are that fragile. They aren’t, except in the usual rare exceptional instances, occurring with equal frequency among all social groups. Still he has applied a peacekeeping, distance-making approach. This cannot be healthy as a first recourse.

Approaching, Loving, Respecting, vs. “Tolerating”

Peacemaking approaches persons’ differences rather than running from them. It encourages persons to appreciate others, to act in an attitude of love and respect in spite of differences. Loving respectfulness draws persons together as they are, not asking them to submerge or deny aspects of their core character but rather to bring themselves into the open. If one’s character needs correcting, it can be corrected there. If one’s individual characteristics are worthy of appreciating (as is usually the case) they can be appreciated there — far more than if they’re submerged under a veneer of pseudo-mutuality.

This, by the way, is what the word “tolerance” used to mean: It was never about acting as if we agree, it was about respecting and loving one another as persons whether we agree or not.

We don’t hear much about love and respect in public conflict these days. These are the real virtues we should be encouraging, rather than the distance-producing counterfeit virtue of “tolerance.”

I call upon the mental health professions to take up the call for interpersonal love and mutual respect, and to publicly identify contemporary “tolerance” as the false virtue it is, harmful to individuals and to relationships.

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19 Responses to “ An Open Letter to Mental Health Professionals on the Effects of “Tolerance” ”

  1. You provided a quote from Negy, and we can see he called the Christians bigots. I wish you’d also quote the Christian students so we can see in what way they spoke up for their beliefs. Maybe the Christian students were particularly harsh in their manner of speaking, and that’s what led Negy to call them bigots. We just don’t know, because you didn’t give enough detail about the Christian students’ statements.

  2. Surely, though, he cannot think Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and non-believers are that fragile.

    It’s not that minority groups are more fragile. It’s that they experience more frequent and more severe instances of negative social interaction than corresponding majority groups.

    In the case of religious minority groups, I’d be willing to bet that they experience a ton of social pressure to defend their beliefs when expressed; much more so than Christians do (in the U.S., where they are the majority group). And I’d also bet that they experience social pressure to not express those beliefs in the first place (for example, by wearing a hijab, bindi, or dastaar).

    I don’t have to bet, though. The evidence of stuff like this is all over the news, if you care to look. And over time, that can really wear someone down. It would wear you down if it happened to you, and I don’t think you’d consider yourself fragile.

    Also: although I’m sure this isn’t true in your case, in a lot of cases, religious critique is used as a proxy to disguise racism. You can look at the racial demographics of various religions to see why that happens. To a muslim, for example, a genuine critique of islam as a religion might not be easily distinguishable anymore from a veiled racist attack.

  3. From Negy’s letter, it seems one Christian student “directed the rest of the class to not participate” in a class activity, apparently because the class activity required students to consider arguments for beliefs different from their own.

    This seems to be the core of Negy’s complaint, so I wish you’d address that aspect.

  4. I don’t have the students’ words and I doubt anyone does.

    I don’t read Negy’s statement the same way you do, John. I think the core of his complaint was in what he mentioned first: Christians thinking their view is the only valid one. This is characteristic of what it means to be a Christian. But something like it is characteristic of all persons. Muslims characteristically think their view is the only valid one, too. So do secularists. People who preach “tolerance” think that’s the only valid view. This isn’t blameworthy in itself; it’s simply human.

    Skep wrote,

    In the case of religious minority groups, I’d be willing to bet that they experience a ton of social pressure to defend their beliefs when expressed; much more so than Christians do (in the U.S., where they are the majority group).

    On campus? Hah! You’ve got to be kidding. In the wider culture? You really think so?

    I think you’re a couple of decades behind the times.

    Even if you were right, though, the professor did the minority students no good by patronizing and protecting them. Suppose the environment really is as hostile for them as you say. Still they have got to learn to live their lives on their own resources. That’s part of what it means to grow up.

    He did them no good by shaming the Christians. A culture of shame is an unhealthy, divided, sick culture. It’s the wrong way to deal with wrong behaviors. An integrative, interactive approach would have been far more emotionally and relationally healthy.

    Back to my main point: A culture of “tolerance” is a divided culture that encourages denial and hiding. Would you agree?

  5. I suppose the irony of the professor’s comments are lost on him.

    Professor, don’t you think that your beliefs are correct too? I don’t know about you but when I find that my beliefs are incorrect, I change them. Bigotry is when beliefs are held that are unreasonably (unreasoningly?) intolerant of another set of beliefs. The confidence and conviction that one holds true beliefs does not, itself, a bigot make.

    The professors seems to take it as a basic assumption that some sort of religious relativism is true- and thus that arguing for the truth of one religion is unfair to any other religion which has “just as much” of a claim to truth. This ITSELF seems to be a belief which he “confidently holds” (I would argue unreasonably).

    So when the professor says: “Stop advocating as if you know the truth” the most appropriate is, “Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing, sir?”

    I suspect all of this is rooted in the shift of many to judge religious claims not as truth claims but as claims of pesonal preference. To many, the claim “Jesus Christ was the son of God” is categorically indistinguishable from “The Redskins are the best football team in the NFL.”

  6. Suppose the environment really is as hostile for them as you say. Still they have got to learn to live their lives on their own resources. That’s part of what it means to grow up.

    Tom, I don’t think you’re appreciating the level of hostility that religious minority groups often face in the U.S. For example, several Jewish cemeteries were recently vandalized. If those had happened to be Christian cemeteries, don’t you think it might make you think twice before talking about your religion in public, or going outside before wearing a cross necklace?

    And, this story just came across my news feed as I was writing this comment: “Four Mosques Have Burned In Seven Weeks — Leaving Many Muslims and Advocates Stunned”.

    Do you really think that jews and muslims need to “learn to live their lives on their own resources” in light of things like this happening? Is dealing with arson and cemetery vandalism “part of what it means to grow up”?

    Does the same thing apply to Coptic Christians in Egypt, who last year suffered a bombing of their largest cathedral, killing 25 people? If you were a Christian in Egypt, would you defend the right of a Muslim student to do what the Christian student did in Negy’s class?

    Back to my main point: A culture of “tolerance” is a divided culture that encourages denial and hiding. Would you agree?

    You say “The supposed virtue of tolerance is characterized by persons affecting agreement with others’ views even when their own views differ”. I’d agree that this is a bad thing – but I can’t recall anyone ever advocating such a thing.

    You also say “It’s characterized further by the insistence that if people do disagree, they keep that to themselves.”. This is more accurate, but I fail to see how this is necessarily a bad thing. Debate and discussion is a good thing in general, but there’s a time and a place for it. Sometimes, it’s more important to just let people complete their classes, do their jobs, and go about their lives.

    I’m an atheist. Some of my friends are also atheists, but some are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, or Sikhs. If I was constantly arguing with them about religion, I wouldn’t have very many friends. Tolerating their views means I have more meaningful interpersonal relationships, not less.

  7. Skep,

    Is advocating for the truth of one’s view in a public forum indistinguishable from property damage and vandalization?

  8. Do you really think that jews and muslims need to “learn to live their lives on their own resources” in light of things like this happening? Is dealing with arson and cemetery vandalism “part of what it means to grow up”?

    No, not in light of crimes being committed against them. But yes, in terms of people disagreeing with their beliefs. Get a grip, Skep. There’s a difference, you know!

    I’m an atheist. Some of my friends are also atheists, but some are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, or Sikhs. If I was constantly arguing with them about religion, I wouldn’t have very many friends. Tolerating their views means I have more meaningful interpersonal relationships, not less.

    I don’t think you read any of what I wrote in the OP. Come back later if you want, but not until you’re willing to engage with what I wrote instead of your distorted version of what you think I would have written.

    I didn’t say, nor did I imply, nor did I come close to implying, nor do I recommend, nor do I condone “constantly arguing” about anything whatsoever. You grabbed that from some source other than the page, and my best guess is you got it from some stereotype.

    If you’re going to disagree with me here, at least have the courtesy to have a clue what you’re disagreeing with. If you’re not going to show that courtesy, find someone else to “disagree” with. I do not appreciate the calumnous misrepresentation, and I don’t have time to waste telling inattentive, careless people I didn’t write what they thought someone like me would stereotypically write, I wrote what I actually wrote.

  9. Professor, don’t you think that your beliefs are correct too?

    And don’t you think that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and non-believers think that their beliefs are correct, as well.

    The reality of our existence is that most beliefs, on a particular topic, promote one set of beliefs as opposed to another. It’s called thesis/antithesis. If you believe in Islam is true (and Muslims do) then they necessarily believe Christianity is false. If you believe in Hinduism is true then you necessarily believe Judaism is false. If you believe Judaism is true then you necessarily believe atheism is false.

    Likewise, if you believe Jungian psychology is true you necessarily believe Freudian psychology is false. If you believe abiogenesis is true then you necessarily believe that creationism is false. If you believe liberal political thought is true you necessarily believe conservative political though is false.

    This certainly isn’t lost on the professor in question or is it lost on most anyone else who can add one plus one. The difference is that the professor in question and many others in the society seize this idea and twist it 180 degrees to make it seem that this quite natural and unavoidable consequence of rational thought is somehow an affront to those who are on the receiving end of the equation.

    But there is a caveat to this supposed affront. It’s only an affront if the person on the receiving end are part of a chosen group. In other words, it’s certainly not an affront to Christians if believers in Islam think Christian thought is false. But turn it around and there is no end to the hyperventilating about the perceived offense. This despite the fact that neither group could be considered a “minority” in any sense given they are the two largest religions in the world and near enough equal in size.

    But then we all know that this isn’t about affronts or taking any real offense to anyone’s beliefs. It’s about a tactic. A tactic that silences one’s opposition. A tactic that’s been used over and over again in world history. A tactic that been part of totalitarian thought in all it’s forms from the Soviet Union to the Communist China to Fascist Germany.

  10. This professor is just advocating typical leftist/ Marxist class theory ideology. People are split into two groups, the haves and the have nots. In the USA the haves are whites, males, the rich, straight/non-trans transgender people and Christians. The have nots are minorities, Muslims, Hindus, etc etc, homosexuals and transgender, and the poor.

    The goal of this professor is to take power from the haves,( in this case Christians) and protect the have nots (in this case non-Christians).

    He does this by insisting the haves do not speak or debate their world view as it will offend the haves not. Of course the have nots think their world views are true and believe the other world views are false but its not about being fair to the haves, remember the professor thinks they already have the power, its about protecting the have nots and de-powering the haves.

    For example at my university during a discussion on race in my classroom, the opinions of the black females on race were counted not only as more then the white males but as the truth of the matter and the white males were told they couldn’t speak on the issue or about the black community because they weren’t black and didn’t understand. Meanwhile the black female was allowed to judge white America and give her opinion about what they understood and didn’t even though she had just said if you aren’t apart of a racial group you shouldn’t speak on that group. It was unfair but as a have not she was given the ground to speak and couldn’t be questioned because her statues as a have not apparently validated her opinions.

    Even though I guess I’m a part of have not groups as a black female, this mentality doesn’t help out anything. As we see it then turns around and treats another group unfairly (the Christians were signaled out and told to stay quiet), it hinders productive discussion and makes the younger generation soft-minded and in fact authoritarian towards thoughts or groups they don’t like or have been taught are haves and need to be torn down. Also when the people advocating this are in power or come to power (which they are), the groups they don’t like are treated unfairly and the groups they like are treated with a special status.

    The logical conclusion of this type of thinking is being acted upon in places like Canada were they are trying to pass a “anti-Islamophobia” law were in effect you can’t criticize Islam in public or you will be punished (I’m not sure how). And of course people who oppose are being smeared as “bigots.” And in good old secular leftist Denmark where a guy was charged with blasphemy for burning a Quran on video or in England where two pastors face jail time for merely offending Muslims and members of the LGBTQ community in public. No really they are being charged with a hate crime for emotionally offending people…… The prosecution is arguing that they as a majority shouldn’t be saying things that offend a minority and that claiming your world view is the truth is offensive and on the same level as bigotry and hatred. Just like this professor. Meanwhile Muslims are rightly left to proselytize all they want, but that’s the catch 22, this only applies to groups secular far-leftist don’t like.

  11. YOU KNOW, TOM, I DO AGREE WITH YOU POINT THAT TOLERANCE IS DIFFERENT FROM FALSE HUMILITY. CHRISTIANS TODAY ARE FORCE TO SWALLOW THE GOSPEL JUST BECAUSE THE GOVERNMENT, OR SOME PEOPLE, ARE OFFENDED BY THE TRUTH.

    JESUS WAS NEVER AFRAID TO LAY THE TRUTH, JUST AS IT WAS, IN FRONT OF THE PHARISEES. EVEN THOUGH HE DID OFFENDED SOME OTHER PEOPLE, WHO HAD A DIFFERENT BELIEF SYSTEM FROM HIM, HE ALWAYS PRESENTED THE TRUTH AS GOD SEES IT TO BE. NOT AS MAN WANTS IT TO BE.

    NOW DON’T MISUNDERSTAND ME HERE. JESUS WAS NOT A HATER OF PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT OPINIONS; I MEAN, HE DIDN’T GO ABOUT ADVOCATING FOR THE LYNCHING OF ALL WHO DISAGREED WITH HIM. HE JUST DIDN’T LET THEIR OPINIONS AND EMOTIONS PREVENT HIM FROM PRESENT THE TRUTH AS GOD SEES IT TO BE (CHECK OUT MATTHEW 15: 12).

    THE DISCIPLES AND APOSTLES ALSO RAISED A LOT OF TEMPERS BY THEIR MESSAGE THAT CONDEMNED SIN, AND THE SINFUL LIVING, BUT THAT DIDN’T STOP THEM FROM SPEAKING THE TRUTH. HERE IS THE TRUTH; THE GOSPEL IS THE THE ONLY WAY TO HEAVEN, THERE IS NO OTHER WAY (JOHN 14:6). YOU CAN EITHER BELIEVE IT OR DROP IT. BUT JUST BECAUSE YOU DISAGREE, IT DOESN’T CHANGE THE TRUTH.

    I AM NOT HITTING ON ANY ONE BELIEF SYSTEM, I AM JUST REMINDING CHRISTIAN THE WORDS OF JESUS HIMSELF IN JOHN 16: 33
    “IN THE WORLD YOU WILL HAVE TRIBULATION, BUT BE OF GOOD CHEER, I HAVE OVERCOME THE WORLD.” DON’T BE AFRAID TO PRESENT THE TRUTH OF GOD’S WORD, BUT DO IT WITH LOVE. DO NOT FORCE ANYBODY TO ACCEPT YOU MESSAGE, BUT NEVER BE INTIMIDATED BY, THE OPPOSING PARTY, INTO MUTENESS.

  12. I’m afraid I might have to add another condition to the discussion policies. The content for several recent comments from a certain person was perfectly fine, but it was several paragraphs typed in all capital letters, which is considered the internet equivalent of screaming at the top of your lungs. This isn’t a screamer blog.

    But maybe something else is going on instead of that. I want to believe the best.

    The person who sent it will probably see this, so I’ll direct this to that person: if there’s a technical or medical reason you need to use all caps, you can add another message to say so and I’ll release the comment from moderation.

    You absolutely do not need to say what the reason is; it’s enough just to let us know that you have one.

    Then all the readers here can know you don’t actually intend to be yelling.

    If you don’t have a real reason for it, though, please re-send your messages in normal upper and lower case. Thanks.

  13. HELLO TOM, THERE IS INDEED A VALID REASON WHY I USE ALL CAPS. THAT WAS EVEN HOW I WROTE MY COLLEGE/UNIVERSITY EXAMS.

    THANK YOU FOR BEING OBJECTIVE, ON THE SUBJECT MATTER, AND NOT THROWING OUT MY COMMENTS. NORMALLY, WHEN I WANT TO YELL, I DO THIS “HELLO TOM!!!!!”

    I AM VERY DIFFERENT, THAT’S ALL I WILL OFFER AT THE MOMENT.

    GOD BLESS YOU

    (angel)(angel)(angel)(angel)(angel)

By commenting here you acknowledge that you have read and agree to abide by this site's discussion policies. I don't use CAPTCHA. In place of that, if this is your first comment here it will stay in a moderation queue until I check to make sure it isn't spam.

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