The limits of tolerance

On the whole I think there’s a lot to be said for a ‘live and let live’ outlook. I prefer to think the best of people unless I have a very good reason to do otherwise. I don’t imagine everyone should think, eat, act, dress or believe exactly the way I do. But there is a line that can be crossed here. A point at which tolerance ceases to be honourable. It’s very easy for tolerance to become indifference, and mean turning a blind eye to the immoral, unacceptable and downright evil.
There are things it’s easy to point at and say we should not tolerate. Child abuse. Murder. War. Lying. Cheating. Anything dishonourable. For most of those (the exception for me being child abuse) it’s possible to think of scenarios where they would be acceptable. Lying is dishonourable, unless Ann Frank is in the attic and Hitler is at the front door. Life would be so much easier if there were clear cut lines about everything. I think much of the potency of honourable living stems from the sheer difficulty of doing so. And some of that has to do with how challenging it is to even figure out what an honourable course of action would be in any given circumstance.
Where do we draw the lines for tolerance? How accepting should we be? The only real measure we have for deciding if we find something objectionable, is our own subjective, emotional response to it. Our culture, personal history and beliefs will colour that.
I think if you encounter something you don’t like the first question to ask is, why? Be as precise as you can about what bothers you. The more you question yourself at this stage, the easier it is to work on the issue. It’s easy to identify a group of people who seem to personify something we don’t like – foreigners, teenagers, the poor, the rich, the religious, the non-believers, and ascribe characteristics. Most people reading this blog will be conscious of prejudice and guard against it in their own thoughts. But, there is a world of difference between saying ‘all teenagers are evil’ and ‘bored teenagers who have no self esteem can behave in ways I really don’t like.’ The more precise we are, the better. Sometimes, in the process of scrutiny we can find what makes us feel intolerant has far more to do with our own feelings, things we dislike about ourselves even, than anything external.
What harm does it cause? If no one, and nothing is suffering as a consequence, then it really doesn’t matter. And at the same time, if you look hard enough, pretty much every human behaviour can be construed as harmful if you can get to it from the right angle. Especially when beliefs get in the mix. Think of the fear of social and family breakdown that homosexuality seems to inspire in some people. Plenty of intolerance has to do with fear. So if you aren’t sure if it is fair to judge someone else, ask what, if anything, you are afraid their behaviour means, or could lead to. Ask what kind of judgements you are making about their right to choose, and the willingness of any perceived victims.
When is it ok to judge someone else? When would it be dishonourable to accept an action, statement or belief? How tolerant should we be, for example, of intolerant faiths and political stances that would, if given power, supress the very tolerance that allows it currently to continue? How much should we be guided by the fear of causing offence?
One of the hardest challenges facing a liberal society, is how to deal with illiberal elements within it. To force liberal values onto others makes a nonsense of the very values liberals cherish. And equally, to empower those who will use that to disempower us, is madness. If we want to embrace everyone, understand everyone, make room for every perspective, how do we do that without the most aggressive voices coming to dominate? How do we do that without giving a big, fat, useful platform to the people who most want to make everyone else conform to their view?
What can’t you tolerate, and why? It’s informative to make a list. Aside from physical abuses, I think the thing I’m least tolerant of is dogma and assertions of certainty where there can only be opinion. My personal feeling is that if people could reliably discriminate between facts and interpretations, facts and beliefs, facts and emotions… the world would be a much better place and most of these other tolerance issues could safely be left to evaporate.
What can’t you tolerate? Please do comment.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

2 responses to “The limits of tolerance

  • Jaime Samms

    That’s a hard question to answer without a whole other blog post, Bryn. You’ve written a blog pot full of questions that can’t really be answered because everyone s going to have a different answer. They are definitely important ideas to think about, and any clarity can only bring better communication, on personal levels and beyond. As usual, I found this really interesting and thought provoking. Thanks you.

  • Kelley

    From my observation, I think liberal thinkers just want to be able to live their lives (for example, gay couples)without being turned into villains. It seems to be those on the religious right that want people to live a certain way. I find this mind boggling because it’s those on the right that want less government control, but they want control over people’s lives as it fits their agenda–squashing a woman’s right to choose and not allowing gay couples to marry.

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