Tolerance is a strange word. It is one I think should possibly be obscolete. As a verb perhaps ‘to tolerate’ shouldn’t really be part of our active vocabulary any longer when we frame it upon an ‘us’ and ‘them’ backdrop.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to tolerate is:
1. To allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of something that one dislikes or disagrees with without interference
2. To be capable of continued subjection to (a drug, toxin, or environmental condition) without adverse reaction
It is to put up with something or someone you don’t agree with; to permit it for some reason, but it requires no obligation of acceptance. It seeks not to understand, but rather to endure as it holds, that being tolerated, at arms length.
There is also something hopeful and transitory about the word – it is a short-term measure. In other words, it suggests that if we tolerate something for a while eventually the toleraté will give up and disappear, or it will assimilate and become un-noticeable. It’s a wimpy word that says I believe one thing but because I’m scared of confronting the true prejudice, ignorance and power that I live within I will permit it through this thing that I describe as tolerance.
But in actual fact, to tolerate is to ignore on the surface what is prevalent at a deeper level. It is to say ‘I am better than you but because I can’t turn you into me right away I shall permit you to hang around while I subtly try to break you – if I can’t then I will become bitter and my underlying anger will result in unfriendly behaviour…you’d better just submit’.
Think about alcohol tolerance.
It can be built up over a period of time if you drink consistently and in gradually increasing amounts – the more you drink the more you will be able to handle as you go a long. Great.
But just because the affects of the alcohol take longer to notice it doesn’t mean your body isn’t being profoundly affected by it.
Alcohol is poison, and the very fact that you are putting something into your body that you need to ‘tolerate’ will eventually lead you to a place of reckoning. Perhaps one day you will drink too much and throw up (a short-term tolerance excess) and then in the long run develop liver problems, heart disease, pancreatitis etc. You don’t notice the alcohol eating away at your insides and by the time the signs are externally visible it is probably too late to do anything about it.
When we use the word ‘tolerance’ in our every day language (religious tolerance, sexual tolerance, political tolerance etc) we say ‘let them believe what they want to believe and do what they like as long as it doesn’t affect me and is not in my face’. It is the granting of permission from a position of power as a trade-off for hidden quiet. It says that as long as I can’t see you, I don’t mind, but if you start getting comfortable and feeling too at home around me I will have something to say.
The problem doesn’t start with any ‘other’ in our society; it is nothing to do with those we ‘tolerate’, but rather the problem rests somewhere within our very tolerance of tolerance. We tolerate a world where we (the ‘tolerator’) are allowed to feel like we have the permission to tolerate people who think, believe and act differently to us.
This is at the heart of the issue; we unknowingly tolerate the idea of the ‘other’ as inferior, the imbalances in our society, the systems and structures that create a world where people feel such hate towards one another. That is where our tolerance really inhabits. As long as we tolerate this ideology we will use the notion of liberal tolerance to subconsciously justify it.
We must be asking questions about the things we are told to tolerate. Firstly, what is it we are tolerating? We need to be really honest about it. And then, once we have identified that, why do we feel like we are tolerating it? For example, you could tolerate certain members of your family because you know it would mean a lot to certain other members whom you love and respect. However, if we simply tolerate because we’ve been told to (so that we don’t offend the members whom we are tolerating for example) we are not being honest, neglecting the heart of the matter, and will eventually end up being metaphorically sick because we don’t care if they’re tolerated or not.
Tolerance in itself doesn’t require any change of heart, it just requires us to ‘put up with’ something. This is no good. We need to be transformed if we are truly going to be accepting of ‘the other’ and we need to be willing to confront the things that we are not comfortable with. We need a reason. We need to go through the process of becoming the other if we are going to end up embracing them. It is a process that requires understanding, learning and dialogue. We must ask questions of each other, tolerate the questions asked of us and then come to a point where we can see from perspectives other than our own what ‘tolerance’ looks like.
How do you feel about the idea of being ‘tolerated’ by someone else, or by society? Does it make you feel warm, fuzzy and welcome with a real sense of belonging?
Andy Mort is a UK based musician and writer. He is the founder of Sheep Dressed Like Wolves: a Blog and Podcast helping introverts and highly sensitive people recognise and embrace their creativity; and identify what is holding them back from living with the passion, purpose, and meaning they seek in a sometimes overwhelming world.