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Who wouldn’t want to be tolerant? Raise your hand, please! But what does it mean exactly?
The world is ‘tolerated’, who will ‘intolerate’ it?1 ‘Tolerant’ has become one of the best compliments you can receive. On the other hand, ‘he/she is an intolerant person’ hurts our ears.
Different dictionaries offer different meanings for the verb “to tolerate”. I want to focus on two of the senses, but I will present four senses2 to save you from looking for them: 1. To refrain from interfering with or prohibiting (something undesirable or outside one's own practice or beliefs); allow or permit. 2. To recognize and respect (the rights, beliefs, or practices of others). 3. To accept or be patient regarding (something unpleasant or undesirable); endure. 4. Medicine To have tolerance for (a substance or pathogen).
Who wouldn’t want to be tolerant? Raise your hand, please! What does it mean exactly, when we say someone is tolerant? It can mean that someone is patient, but it also defines somebody who ‘approves’ of something illicit -illegal, forbidden by law; it is also used to talk about the tolerance of certain foods, e.g. ‘she is lactose-intolerant’; finally, we also use it to describe the level or respect a person shows for conflicting ideas other people promote.
I don’t know if you’ll agree with me, but the first sense is the one that worries me the most: to refrain from interfering with or prohibiting (something undesirable or outside one’s own practice or beliefs), especially when it’s done by omission, passively. It worries me because, when limits are not clear, the lack of restraint follows. Where is the boundary between good and evil? Does it even exist? Is it set by each person according to their perceptions?
Tolerance is everybody’s business. The way it is expressed nowadays, it is within the framework of interpersonal relationships. That is, it can’t be exclusively based on a unique, personal perception, but on the sum of what the many see, think and feel. This is great when the majority is moving within the right parameters, but disastrous when it’s not. Is the majority always right?
One of the enemies we face when it comes to tolerance is apathy. Let’s use the following analogy: I can tolerate dairy products because I’m not lactose-intolerant. That is, it doesn’t affect me. Many times I see that it’s easy to tolerate something -opinions, actions, social injustice…- simply because it doesn’t affect us directly. Mora than tolerant, this should be called being apathetic, shouldn’t it? Those who suffer from allergies take care of paying attention to the ingredients on the back of food containers.
Cristina Yanes Cabrera explains the concept of tolerance in this way: ‘today, being tolerant doesn’t mean giving up one’s convictions, defending and spreading them, but doing it without the resource to violent imposition. Tolerance entails respecting and being considerate towards others’ opinions and actions, as well as recognizing immunity for those who profess customs, traditions and beliefs different to those officially accepted. Tolerance must entail, necessarily, the lack of any violence, physical or of any other kind, towards the opinions considered different or wrong, and must express the willingness to accept, without being upset, that others might profess ideas and opinions differing from ours.’ 3
Even though I agree with most of what I have quoted, there is something that deserves more attention. What does it mean ‘Tolerance entails [...] immunity for those who profess customs, traditions and beliefs different to those officially recognized’? I wonder what is “officially accepted”, in our society. Human rights? What happens, then, with those countries which don’t uphold human rights? For example, female genital mutilation violates the human rights of, at least, 140 million women. Why is it tolerated? Is it because the countries where this practice takes place have some kind of international immunity? What weighs more on the scale of injustice, the evil of the wicked or the indifference of the righteous?
We must not only know the human rights, but respect them, and that implies raising one’s hand to have the floor and denouncing any violations. The same applies to civil law. They set the legal limits of our action. Big corporations know a lot about this. What should be say about the natural laws governing the universe? When somebody looks out onto the balcony from a high floor, we worry because we know the law of gravity. Everything is OK, so far. But my question is whether there are other laws that go beyond human rights, civil codes and natural law.
Is there a universal moral Law? Philosophy has been debating this for centuries. Is there a universal code of behavior for human beings? Christian think there is one, and they call it the Bible.
Our secularized society doesn’t take it into account, thinks of it as useless in today’s world. However, in it we find the model of a person who established a value superior to that of tolerance. Jesus said that the whole law could be summarized in two points: one of these is to love others as we love ourselves. He didn’t ask us to simply consent to other people’s attitudes, opinions or actions, but to go one step further to get involved and help people in their quest for truth. Jesus presented himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. What laws revolve around these three concepts? Do we know them? Do they affect us? If so, we will be something beyond tolerant. Apathy won’t be a part of our code of behavior.
Francisco Sánchez, Secondary School teacher in Spain.
1. In the original, this is a play on words on a popular tongue twister in Spanish.
2. The original article uses the definitions found in the Diccionario de la Lengua Española de la Real Academia. The definitions provided here are found in The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from https://ahdictionary.com/. Click here to see these definitions on the publisher’s website. These senses roughly match the definitions in Spanish.
3. Antecedentes de una educación para la tolerancia en la Historia de la Educación española a través de algunos de los educadores más representativos, Revista Iberoamericana de Educación (ISSN: 1681-5653).