This is a summary version of my last post, plus thoughts for a serious discussion on what ‘tolerance’ really is. I would really ask that people try to look at this ‘proposed definition of tolerance’ and criticize the heck out of it. However, remember the primary rule of rationality. Rationality is to advance a counter explanation, not to shoot holes in someone else’s.
Legal Tolerance is More Important Than “Everyday Tolerance”
When we speak of ‘tolerance’ there are really two kinds or degrees. The first is the more important: we must never make laws (or break laws) to force people to believe in ways we prefer. This is the single most important aspect of tolerance.  This form of ‘intolerance’ is therefore about violence or threat of violence, either in the illegal or legal variety.
Everyday Tolerance: Being Respectful in Disagreements
But legal tolerance is not what we generally mean when we speak of tolerance. If it was, then skin-heads that don’t break the law would be as tolerant as anyone else. So I would suggest that when we speak of “tolerance” we generally mean civility in non-violent conflict. This being the case, then I suggest the following “rules of tolerant behavior” for your consideration:
- Tolerance Does Not Mock Other People’s Beliefs
- Tolerance Does Not Misrepresent, Lie, of be Deceptive about Other People’s Beliefs
- Tolerance is Being Respectful and Civil in Your Communication to People of Another Belief
- Tolerance Does Not Use Stereotypes
- Tolerance Allows People to State their Own Beliefs; It Does Not State it For Them
- Tolerance Does Not Use Dual Standards
What about Ad Hominem Attacks?
I did not include so-called Ad Hominem attacks on my list, despite being the most famous form of ‘intolerance.’ I wish to explain why I left it off. (And I’d appreciate criticism from all of you on this ‘oversight’ of mine.)
The primary reason I excluded it is because I think the concept of an ‘ad hominem attack’ is really vague in most people’s minds. Most of the time I think people use it to mean ‘don’t personally insult someone else.’ I agree with this sentiment, but I list it under the rule “be respectful and civil in your communication.”
The more technically correct understanding of an ‘ad hominem attack’ is when you don’t discuss the logical issue under consideration and instead focus on a belief or trait of the speaker. I note that this can be done in respectful or disrespectful way and also can be done in a relevant or irrelevant way. (The Wikipedia article does a good job describing common misunderstandings of ad hominem attacks.)
But there are many things people label ‘ad hominem attacks’ that are actually rationally valid. In fact, it’s so common, that I’ve lost all faith in people’s use of the phrase. Someone claiming something is an ad hominem attack might mean anything from ‘‘that wasn’t relevant’ to ‘that was totally relevant but I didn’t like how you said it’ to ‘How dare you disagree with me.’
For example, if T. Boone Pickens makes a rational argument for switching to natural gas, the fact that he’s going to personally benefit from it is absolutely a legitimate point of discussion since his bias is relevant. It is true that if Pickens was using solely deductive logic, then his bias doesn’t matter. But we humans almost never use deductive logic in our ‘rational arguments.’ So it’s hard for me to imagine a situation where personal bias (and sometimes even personal character) isn’t valid in a rational discussion. 
The flip side is that it’s possible to make a rationally valid personal insult. If someone says “I’d never want to learn charity from a jerk like so-and-so that behaves in such-and-such a way” they are personally insulting them, and therefore being intolerant as per my suggested rules. But actually, their point was likely rationally valid. The key here is to rephrase the charge into a more civil and respectful – but factually correct – way. Perhaps “I have concerns with so-and-so’s arguments for charity because their arguments seem to be one way and self serving. I note that in this situation…”
What is the Core Idea in “Tolerance”?
I believe the core idea behind tolerance is to treat others how you’d like to be treated. Or put another way, to be consistent. I believe “inconsistency” and “intolerance” or generally one and the same.
Therefore, I consider the first touchstone of “tolerance” to be that it must preserve conflict. This is an obvious principle (at least in retrospect) because no one wants to be forced to not speak up about their values.
I can never agree with any definition of tolerance that seeks to remove conflict. Removing conflict is always a form of either tyranny or intolerance. Tolerance must be ‘rules of engagement’ in civil conflict, not a way to suppress it.
I believe the second touchstone of “tolerance” is it’s about how you treat your enemies and rivals, not your friends and allies. I see no discernable difference between ‘one-sided tolerance’ and’ intolerance.’ 
Rules for Discussion
These rules above strike me as what I have in mind when I think of tolerance. But are they correct? What problems do they pose? Are they complete? Are they even self consistent?
Please try to shoot holes in my above definition of tolerance. But do so by coming up with your own counter definition, not merely by attacking mine. This is the essence of rationality: to only ‘attack’ someone’s position by proposing your own better one. Rejectionism (not believing in anything, just disbelieving in something) is essentially just irrationality. So stick your neck out when you criticize another’s position and enter into real dialog.
I want people to really get a feel for how difficult it is to define tolerance. Even the very concepts of ‘civility’ and ‘respect’ seems elusive to me at times. I am personally unsatisfied with my own definition of ‘tolerance’ and I am still seeking a better one. It is a work in progress for me. Wanting my own views to be publicly criticized stems from my own desire to try to improve my views with feedback from others.
Offering Myself Up as An (Bad?) Example
A point for discussion. Take a look at this post that I made. In it I said the following:
Evangelicals often live in a self inflicted world of ignorance when it comes to other religions.
Be sure to look at the whole context. One sentence isn’t always enough to make a tolerance judgment by since additional nuance may be in the sentences or paragraphs nearby. Stripping a single sentence out of context is never a tolerant thing to do.
That being said, I offer it up for consideration and with permission to criticize me for it (in a respectful way). Here is the question: was I being tolerant here? Specifically, was I stereotyping Evangelical Christians? Or was I tolerantly pointing to a real issue that needs discussion? I am not sure I even know the answer to this question. So I offer it up as a real life example of the dividing line between tolerance and intolerance in hopes of stimulating dialog.
Because ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’ and ‘civility’ can be so elusive, one thing we need to learn to accept is that no one gets it right all the time. Dwelling on one misstep is a form of intolerance because we ask others to not do it to our mistakes.
Also, compare this quote above to my last post in which I expresses something similar and specified my own dividing line between stereotyping and bring up a real issue worthy of discussion:
To use a real life example, it would be intolerant for me to say that “Evangelical Christians are all bigots.” That’s a stereotype and it’s unfair. But it’s not intolerant for me to raise the issue that many self identified Evangelical Christians I have met –- but not all of them or even most of them –- misrepresent Mormon beliefs in deceptive or bigoted ways and often do so after learning what to say in classes supplied by their ministers. The first is a stereotype, the other is a legitimate issue that needs to be raised and discussed even though it’s uncomfortable. Tolerance is never a reason to not address real issues.
I honestly wonder if I stuck to my principles above with the linked comment, or if I ‘crossed the line.’ But if you do believe I crossed the line, I insist on the following: you must take a stab at rewording what I said so that it addresses the real issue, but does so tolerantly. No sweeping an honest issue under the run in the name of tolerance.
Take some time on this issue and, if you wish, do a counter post (on M* or on your own blog) and give us your thoughts. This is not an easy subject and shouldn’t be treated like it is.
Final point for discussion for the really brave: Is tolerance always a virtue? Is tolerance always a good thing? Are there situations where tolerance is bad? If so, how do we know which situations are which?
This last question is something I want to address in the future, but I confess the fact that I have no answer for these questions really bothers me.
 An Example of Legal Intolerance and the Dangers of One Way Tolerance. I once saw a movie about Noam Chomsky. He was railed on for having supported a man that denied that holocaust. Chomsky was instantly branded as a holocaust denier himself for his ‘crime.’ One woman in the film, with anger and hatred in her eyes, railed on Chomsky for denying the holocaust. He calmly told her he did not.
Then why did you support someone that did? she demanded.
Because I believe in freedom of speech, he replied. This denier may be wrong, but he should not be sent to jail for it.
But this is the wrong time to be tolerant, she insisted. This is a very bad man and he is hurting people with what he says.
Noam Chomsky calmly asked, Then what is the meaning of tolerance and freedom of speech if not this? In Hitler’s regime, you has as much freedom of speech as you wanted so long as you agreed with Hitler.
The woman just stopped talking, not having a response.
Love him or hate him, Chomsky’s right about this particular issue. If you aren’t ready to stand up for freedom of speech for a holocaust denier, then you aren’t actually in favor of freedom of speech.
 More on personal bias. Likewise, one’s beliefs or unbelief the LDS Church are always a fair question when we are discussing interpretations of LDS history. I’d personally argue that this can’t be an ad hominem attack because personal bias is always a rationally valid point when discussing interpretations of history. This is particularly true if the charge of bias is then backed up with an explanation of how that personal bias led to a selection bias in uses of original sources.
However, even if not backed up in this way (yet), it still strikes me as rationally valid. Why? Because historians can’t help but let their biases affect what sources they find relevant, which sources they seek out, how they judge validity of sources, and even what spin and tone their presentation takes. And it takes time, sometimes a lot of time, to do detective work and come up with a counter explanation. Therefore, a historian’s biases is always relevant to any historical discussion, even if you don’t yet have an explanation of how their biases led to selection bias, but are pretty sure it did. But if you insist on calling this an ad hominem attack, then I insist it’s a logically valid sort of variety. (I also note here that believing historians and scholars are usually happy to expose their biases.)
I feel the same way about journalism. I think the world became a better place when Fox News admitted their conservative bias and CNN admitted their liberal bias. But this is a subject for another time.