A poster on a high school wall read, “Its OK to believe that you’re right, but its not OK to believe that someone else is wrong.” The person who wrote that slogan undoubtedly thought that he or she was expressing an important value of human relationships: tolerance. Its become a buzzword today; we see it everywhere. Tolerance is encouraged everywhere, its included in school curricula, businesses have workshops to teach it to their employees and managers, and its mentioned in nearly every public forum. Tolerance is everywhere.
But is it possible that there is a dark side to this tolerance? Is it possible that, in some way, tolerance is actually harming society?
Maybe at this point you are thinking that you’re reading the words of some sort of raving, bigoted lunatic. How could anyone possibly be against the concept of tolerance toward others who are different in some way? Well, let me set your mind at ease. I think tolerance is a wonderful concept. I strongly believe in tolerance. What I do take issue with is the way in which tolerance is defined today. You see, I grew up when the civil rights movement was at its peak. Tolerance was a big buzzword then, too. And intolerance was rampant. Discrimination because of racial differences was found nearly everywhere. Those who supported the aims of the civil rights movement encouraged tolerance between the races. There was also talk, back then, of tolerance between those of differing religious and political viewpoints. Tolerance meant that you respected the other person as an individual. It meant that you recognized his or her dignity as a person, and that you recognized that he or she had as many rights as you did, even to believe things that you thought were mistaken, or to live life in a way that you did not agree with. Despite differences in physical characteristics, beliefs, culture or lifestyle, tolerance encouraged each one of us to respect the rights and dignity of each of our fellow humans. And that sort of tolerance was a wonderful thing.
What disturbs me about the concept of tolerance today is the subtle shift that has occurred in the meaning of the term. Today’s tolerance includes all of what I mentioned, and to that extent, it is still desirable that we be tolerant of others. But the modern use of the term has come to imply a sort of relativism. Its not enough anymore, for example, to accept and respect a person who has opinions that differ from yours. Its not enough to acknowledge the rights and dignity that each individual possesses, whether or not you agree with what they believe and practice. Those things may be necessary to the modern definition of tolerance, but they are no longer sufficient. Nowadays, to be truly considered tolerant, you must acknowledge that what the other person believes is every bit as valid and true as what you believe; that, in fact, no belief is any truer than any other, but that all beliefs are relative. Remember the poster? Its OK to believe that you’re right, but its not OK to believe that someone else is wrong.
Now, I find that pretty scary. I find it scary because there is an underlying assumption that challenges everything that I believe in. That assumption is this: There are no absolute truths. Nothing is really true, everything is subjective. And because there are no truths that are true for everybody, logically, what we believe is subject to nothing more rigorous than our own preference. And, therefore, my beliefs are no better than yours. Even though what we believe may be diametric opposites, I have no right to presume that my beliefs are better or truer – than yours are. If I do, then I am being intolerant, at least according to the new definition of the word.
Now, I have a few thoughts about that underlying concept. First, when someone says to me that there are no absolute truths, the first thing I want to ask is whether that statement is absolutely true. Actually, the statement is self-falsifying, because saying that there are no absolute truths is in itself a claim to be stating an absolute truth.
And second, I would point out that people who believe in that sort of relativism seldom live their day-to-day lives in a way that reflects it. Just imagine someone who believes that all truths are relative and subjective going to his bank. He looks at the balance and says to the teller, “Hey, my account is $900 short. What happened to the $1000 deposit I made the other day?” And the teller looks at him and says, “Well, that may have been $1000 to you, but it was only $100 to me, so that’s what I recorded in your account!” Kind of absurd, isn’t it? Relativism doesn’t work in the real world, and that’s why the new definition of tolerance comes into play primarily in areas of politics, religion and morality and not in finance, empirical science and things like that.
And that brings us back around to why I find the new definition of tolerance to be so frightening. Most of us still do believe in some sort of absolute truths, things that we believe are true, or should be true, for all of us. These may be moral truths, political truths, or religious truths. Historically, in this country, we have had the freedom both to believe and openly express our opinions about what these truths are. However, today, I see those freedoms being eroded. In many arenas, speech that advocates absolute truths, that draws clear standards of right and wrong, has to be censored, lest someone who disagrees be offended. Sometimes the expression of ideas that others find offensive is even labeled as hate speech not because any hatred exists in the heart of the speaker, but because he or she has failed the test of the new tolerance because he or she has dared to assert that what he believes is right and that those who disagree are wrong. Suddenly, political correctness has become the litmus test for all public speech.
Now, some of you reading this may disagree with what I am saying. That’s OK. It is your right. It doesn’t scare me at all that you may think I’m wrong. What does scare me is that someday I might lose the right to say what I am saying merely because someone else might find it offensive. Nothing in our country’s Constitution guarantees the right not to be offended – indeed, the very concept of freedom of speech implies that things will be said that others will find offensive. Nonetheless, Americans have historically held dear the right to free expression; it is an integral part of the foundation of what it means to be American.
Am I saying that we should not be tolerant? No, not at all. Tolerance is a virtue. To the extent that tolerance means respecting the rights and dignity of all our fellow human beings, it is a wonderful thing. Don’t hate; don’t condemn; don’t ostracize any other person because of things you dislike about them or the things they believe. But at the same time, don’t compromise what you believe to be true and right. Tolerance should not be defined in such a way as to require us to forsake our values. That would truly be intolerable.