The chief virtue of 21st century America seems to be tolerance. In a pluralistic society, where values clash and cultures collide, it is considered to be the new glue that will hold us all together. It is the philosophy underlying “political correctness,” and the plea of almost all groups who feel misunderstood. We’re morally required to be tolerant even of intolerance, if it represents a misunderstood group, though as Mark Steyn aptly pointed out, that gets complicated:
Our tolerance of our own tolerance is making us intolerant of other people’s intolerance, which is intolerable. And, unlikely as it sounds, this has now become the highest, most rarefied form of multiculturalism.
Even for those who think it’s the greatest answer, though, the reality is that tolerance won’t get you very far. It’s way too weak to do the job. It may start off in the right direction, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Where it stops is wholly inadequate.
One good definition for tolerance is Webster’s: “the act of allowing something; sympathy or indulgence of practices differing or conflicting with one’s own.” In practice, it usually means letting others do and be as they wish without interfering with them. That’s where its weakness lies. In letting others alone, and not interfering, really means separating ourselves from one another. We sanction differences without engaging meaningfully with them. “Live and let live” is a euphemism for “Don’t criticize, ignore.”
Juan Williams was supposed to be tolerant of Islam in this way. Far better not to think about what Islam represents—far better not to interact with it meaningfully at all–than to say anything that might offend.
But this is wimpy. Its veneer of bringing us together is superficial. Why not choose stronger words: “respect” and “love,” instead of “tolerance”? Respect implies understanding and appreciation. How much better if I respect another culture than if I merely tolerate it! I don’t prefer urban music. I can tolerate urban music without a moment’s thought: just ignore it! Some musician friends have taught me what to listen for in it, though (speaking of the musical style, not the lyrics), and while I don’t love it yet, I have more respect for it than before. That’s harder, but stronger than just tolerating it. Is it better, too? Obviously.
Love can bring us together even in our differences: Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. In the full Christian understanding of the word, love can even allow us to have a good disagreement. I have had a several friends who are gay men; one has died of AIDS. In that whole time of tragedy, he and his partner knew my love and respect for them were genuine, yet they also knew that as a Christian, I disagreed with their sexual behavior. In our friendship we could differ. The surviving partner is still a friend. Tolerance says I should not have worried about our differences, and I should never criticize. Love says I can be who I am in relationship with them, and they can too. I can be honest about myself, and they can too. We can be whole persons in relationship together. It’s not as easy as tolerating each other. But tolerance is weak. Love shows its strength by working through differences, not dancing around them.
There is another current sense in which “tolerance” is promoted as a virtue: not just that we should live with our differences, but that we should value others’ viewpoints as highly as our own. What that tells me, though, is that I cannot have any unique personal convictions, or if I do, I’m to hide them or squash them when I’m interacting with anyone who disagrees. Somewhere in the exchange, the person I really am is bound to disappear. All that’s left is bland conformity. How weak is that?
The Bible teaches that God loves us exactly the way we are—but (as many have observed) He loves us too much to want us to remain as we are. He wants us all to grow into the greatest possible fullness of life and character. Following His example, Christians take a stand for what we believe is right, especially regarding moral character and knowledge of God’s truth. We love others as they are, but we believe we all could be more.
Some have interpreted this as not being tolerant. I say, “who cares?” I’m not about to settle for tolerance as my highest virtue; it’s too easy, too weak, too wimpy. Love and respect are much stronger ways of relating with each other, and the only way to connect as whole people.