Posted by: Kenn Hermann | April 26, 2006

The Vacuous Meaning of ‘Tolerance’

While rumaging through some old files, I uncovered a letter to the editor I wrote some years ago in response to a “Character Counts” billboard at the local high school promoting ‘tolerance’ as its character trait of the month. It still speaks to a continuing confusion in a culture that values ‘niceness’ as the epitome of civility.

The seemingly benign counsel to be ‘tolerant’ ignores the many issues and questions that lie at the heart of being a person of solid character. First and foremost, it ought to be absolutely clear that ‘tolerance’ is, quite simply, not a virtue at all. The counsel to ‘be tolerant’ is vacuous; it lacks meaning and substance. It requires an object to be grounded: I ought to be tolerant of what? That’s the central question. Quite frankly, none of us want young people or adults to simply be ‘tolerant.’ That admonition almost always leads (and historically has led) to moral indifference and the inability to discern between the ‘tolerable’ and the ‘intolerable.’ It leads to the very opposite of the intended goal. There are clearly ideas, beliefs, and practices that any moral, civilized, and virtuous person must refuse to tolerate.

The critical questions we should be addressing with our children and students are: what ideas, beliefs, practices, institutions, attitudes, etc. ought we tolerate and which ought we not tolerate? On what grounds, for what reasons? Do we really want people to ‘tolerate’ every thing? Should we tolerate racism, genocide, limp lettuce, adultery, poor grammar, disbelief in Christ, missed curfews, Republicans, torture, Tom Cruise, homosexuality, evolution, and Hummers? If so, why? If not, why not? What differences, if any, exist in this list? How do we discriminate between that which ought to be tolerated and that which ought not to be tolerated? What resources or belief systems do we/can we draw on to answer these questions?

Only when students and adults ask these questions that probe the foundations of their beliefs, hunches, prejudices, or other commitments about what they ought and ought not to tolerate can our young people develop the depth of character we all cherish. Finally, dare I suggest the ‘intolerable’ claim that cultures have historically instructed their young on that which ought to be tolerated, not debated it with them?

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