Tolerance Is Too Weak 

Raz wrote in a recent comment,
"If you want to know what weakens society, it's intolerance and hatred born of ignorance." 

Several years ago I wrote an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinal about tolerance. I'm quoting it here just as it was written then, with no attempt at updating. It may or may not fit right into the current discussion, but it provides a perspective on the word.


Tolerance has become the great virtue of the late 20th century in America. In a pluralistic society, where values clash and cultures collide, it is considered to be the new glue that will hold us all together. It is the philosophy underlying “political correctness,” and the plea of almost all groups who feel misunderstood. Unfortunately, it won’t work.

Tolerance cannot work because at its core, it is a weak idea. It may start off in the right direction, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Where it stops is wholly inadequate.

Tolerance is defined as “the act of allowing something; sympathy or indulgence of practices differing or conflicting with one’s own” (Webster). In practice, it usually means leaving one another alone, letting others do and be as they wish without interference. Therein lies its weakness. For in letting others alone, and not interfering, we separate ourselves from one another. We become divided into our groups. We sanction differences without understanding them. Tolerance breaks down none of the walls between people; it merely says we should accept the walls and live with them. Whenever we create divisions and misunderstanding, however, we have taken a fork off the road that will double back toward hatred and conflict.

Why not choose stronger words: “respect” and “love,” instead of “tolerance”? Respect implies understanding and appreciation. How much better if I respect another culture than if I merely tolerate it! This brings people together.

Love unites us still further, even in our differences: Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. This causes us to come into contact, to break down walls. We can acknowledge differences without separating people.

In the full Christian understanding of the word, love can even allow us to have a good disagreement. I have had a couple of friends who are gay men; one has died of AIDS. In that whole time of tragedy, they knew my love and respect for them were genuine, yet they also knew that as a Christian, I disagreed with their sexual behavior. In our friendship we could differ. The surviving one is still a friend. If I had merely “tolerated” them, we never could have gotten close enough to be friends.

The Bible teaches that God loves us exactly the way we are—but He loves us too much to want us to remain as we are. He wants us all to change, to grow into the greatest possible fullness of character. Following His example, Christians take a stand for what we believe is right, especially regarding moral character and religious teaching. We love others as they are, but we believe we all could be more. Therefore we speak of standards of behavior and lifestyle.

Some have interpreted this as intolerance. But tolerance is not the point—it is too weak a word to spend time worrying about. Love and respect are much stronger ways of relating with each other, and the only way to break down the walls between us. 

Posted: Wed - November 9, 2005 at 09:18 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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