The term “tolerance” shouldn’t be ironic. In today’s political and social climate, however, misconceptions have resulted in misunderstanding of the term, and even actions contrary to its initial intent.
The outcome is that individuals who are told to be tolerant are confused about what exactly that entails, and the individuals advocating for tolerance are left unsatisfied by the increasingly muddied mission.
Last month, Ann Coulter, a conservative commentator, canceled a speech she planned on giving at UC Berkeley, a notably liberal university. Upon news of Coulter’s scheduled speech on campus, threats of legal action and protest from students prompted university staff to advise her against the appearance, due to inadequate security.
Coulter announced the cancellation and noted on Twitter, “I am sorry for free speech crushed by thugs.”
The trouble with situations such as Berkeley is, it’s hypocritical. Though many progressive individuals would insist that tolerance is a crucial feature, they will often – and usually subconsciously – place limitations and specifications on it. It becomes a point of conflict for individuals who might not understand the concept.
In order to more effectively communicate ideas of tolerance, we have to first refocus the definition. In a simple sense, tolerance is the bare minimum. It’s not a holistic comprehension of differing or opposing ideas; that idea is unrealistic. If Republicans completely “understood” Democrats, it would stand to reason they would be Democrats. The reality that intelligent individuals can disagree means that disagreement is somewhat logical, and therefore deserves a level of acceptance.
This is tolerance: the accepting of things that you don’t understand, or even agree with. If individuals who disagree are not accepted, this is intolerance.
In contrast, to be selective about what we do and don’t accept is directly contrary to tolerance. Coulter is an infamously controversial character in politics, especially to liberal or progressive-minded individuals. However, to not allow her opinions to be heard is to assume her opinions are invalid entirely, which would require understanding her opinion entirely – a near-impossibility. Tolerance doesn’t require that one understands Coulter’s position, or even remotely supports her position. Rather, tolerance insists an individual simply has to accept and respect that a different opinion exists.
Then, there’s the idea that tolerance can be abused. This idea is complicated. Obviously there is a difference between tolerating a person and tolerating a violent person. But to be a gatekeeper or enforcer of the rules of tolerance is dangerous. To say a certain belief or lifestyle shouldn’t be tolerated because people of that belief or lifestyle tend to be intolerant is assuming a lot. Firstly, it’s assuming the belief or life-style is the cause, and not merely a correlation. Secondly, it’s assuming tolerance can’t exist within that belief or lifestyle.
The problem then, with these two primary assumptions, is that the solution is far more demanding, especially for something I previously described as “the bare minimum”. If tolerance takes abandoning core values or beliefs to achieve, then it’s harder to accept. But tolerance doesn’t demand that: It simply encourages coexistence – not support, nor sacrifice, even.
Changing people entirely isn’t tolerating them, any more than cutting down a tree and fashioning a chair out of it is tolerating nature.
Those on the Berkeley campus should be able to hold their opinions, and also hear other opinions. If not, these individuals are not supporting a fair playing field for ideas, but rather one that favors their ideas and their purpose, only.
That’s not tolerance; that’s well-meaning prejudice.