Definitions Matter: Tolerance

What Would You Say?

You're in a conversation and someone calls you “intolerant,” not because you are being cruel or harsh but only because you disagree. It’s clear that their understanding of "tolerance” and your understanding of “tolerance” are very different things. What would you say? Definitions matter. In conversations with others, we often find ourselves using the same vocabulary, but not the same dictionary. If we want to have productive conversations, we have to be clear on the meanings of the words we use. The next time you’re in a conversation and the word “tolerance” comes up, here are 2 things to remember: Number 1: People often use “tolerance” to mean accepting and affirming others’ ideas – but that definition self-destructs. Today, it’s not uncommon for people to say things like: “What’s true for you is true for you,” or “no one has the right to judge anyone else,” or “find your truth.” In other words, we are told that everyone’s ideas are right in their own way or according to them. You have your way, I have my way. Nobody is ultimately right, and nobody is ultimately wrong. In this context, the word “tolerance,” means believing there’s no truth and embracing everyone’s ideas as equally “true” for them, even if they are wrong. But this definition of “tolerance,” to embrace everyone’s ideas and behavior as equally legitimate, self-destructs. Here’s why: The claim that “there is no truth” is self-defeating, because it itself is a truth-claim. It affirms what it’s trying to deny. If anyone ever says, “there is no truth,” the best response is a question: “Is that true?” Plus, calling someone “intolerant” assumes that they ought not be that way. But if it’s wrong to be intolerant, then everyone’s ideas and actions are not morally equal. In other words, this wrong understanding of tolerance assumes that there is truth while claiming that there is no truth. Of course, we should be “tolerant” in the right sense of the word. We should be kind and respectful of everyone, even those people with whom we disagree. That isn’t what people mean by tolerance these days. Usually, what it means is that you aren’t allowed to disagree with other people’s views. Number 2: True tolerance requires disagreement, not approval. Genuine tolerance means that you’re remaining respectful and peaceful with someone or something, even when you disagree or are irritated. In fact, the root word for tolerate means to endure or bear… basically to “put up with.” When you tolerate someone, you agree to respectfully endure or put up with something you do not believe or like. It means to recognize and respect another’s beliefs and practices without agreeing with them. In fact, you can’t actually tolerate things you agree with and approve of. You can only truly tolerate something you think is wrong. This difference is crucial, but frequently misunderstood. For example, someone who is pro-choice doesn’t really tolerate abortion, because they do not think abortion is wrong. Someone who believes Jesus is the only way but accepts the value and dignity of someone who doesn’t is being tolerant, because they disagree. See the difference? If you agree with something, then there’s no need to tolerate it. It’s only when you disagree with something that you can tolerate it. If we try to force “tolerance” to mean agreement and approval, then it would lose meaning altogether. Even worse, we’d lose something desperately needed today: the ability to debate vigorously about issues that truly matter, and to disagree respectfully. So the next time you’re talking to someone who says you’re being intolerant simply because you disagree with them, remember these 2 things: Number 1: People often use “tolerance” to mean accepting and affirming others’ ideas – but that definition self-destructs. Number 2: True tolerance requires disagreement, not approval. For What Would You Say, I’m Sarah Stonestreet