Discussion: What is Tolerance?

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. [1] 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

See my previous post for more detail on each of these.

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. [2]

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.’ [1]

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.



[1] 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.

[2] 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.

9 thoughts on “Discussion: What is Tolerance?

  1. From the Medical Dictionary:

    1. diminution of response to a stimulus after prolonged exposure.
    2. the ability to endure unusually large doses of a poison or toxin.

    In engineering:
    The permissible deviation from a specified value of a structural dimension, often expressed as a percent.

    The implication in tolerance of another’s beliefs is: they are wrong, but you (who are right) will allow them to continue to be wrong.

  2. From a religious perspective, I like how Joseph Smith defined tolerance.

    We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

    A of F 1:11

  3. My initial thoughts are similar to what Matthew has already written.

    Tolerance to a poison means that even though it continues to remain poisonous, we are capable of enduring its presence with minimal or no harm.

    Tolerance to a drug would mean that the degree of its effect upon us is minimal because of a natural resistance or conditioned through exposure by degrees.

    In neither of these cases does the tolerance imply that poison is not poisonous or that the drug may not do what it is supposed to do.

    By analogy, tolerance of the views of another does not mean that we have to say that those views are an equally valuable or acceptable alternative, or refrain from criticizing them, or calling them what they are (poisonous views are still poisonous even if we can tolerate them).

    Bruce said: “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. [1] This form of ‘intolerance’ is therefore about violence or threat of violence, either in the illegal or legal variety.”

    I agree as long as we are talking strictly about “belief.” However, tolerating beliefs does not necessarily extend to tolerating actions or practices that result from those beliefs.

    While some poisons may possibly be tolerated perpetually with minimal or no harm, others can only be endured for a limited time or in limited quantities or they will cause serious harm, and there are poisons that we cannot tolerate even if we try to.

    By analogy, some views can be tolerated perpetually, others can be tolerated for a time or in limited quantities, and some cannot be tolerated at all.

    For example we may choose to tolerate those who believe that their god requires them to perform a human sacrifice of an unwilling victim, but if they attempt to act upon their belief, we justifiably may use violence or the treat of violence to stop them. We cannot tolerate such actions and we shouldn’t try.

    This was the issue in Reynolds v United States. The Church did not dispute the fact that even though Congress could not constitutionally make laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion, Congress could make laws that proscribed certain practices derived from religious belief. The Church argued that Congress could only prohibit practices that were identifiably contrary to the Natural Law (like human sacrifice) and that Plural Marriage was not against the Natural Law and so was outside of what could be prohibited.

  4. J Max,

    I should have clarified that I meant ‘beliefs.’ Practices should be tolerated too in so far as they don’t effect others. This becomes an almost subjective dividing line at times, as per your reference to Reynolds v US.

    But learning to tolerate the mere existence of opposing viewpoints seems like a good case of wanting to treat people the way we want to be treated.

  5. This is a great series of posts. I really like how you’ve laid it out with several bolded statements and then explain each.

    In particular, I’d give you a gold star for these two alone:

    “Tolerance Does Not Misrepresent, Lie, of be Deceptive about Other People’s Beliefs

    Tolerance Does Not State Other People’s Beliefs in Ways Meant to Get a Negative Reaction”

    My only hesitation to fully accept your definition is that I think you might be trying to elevate “tolerance” to something that it isn’t; i.e., you’re trying to describe the correct way that to treat others and the closest word you can think of for it is “tolerance.” By analogy, I could define the word “nice” to essentially encompass everything that would normally be covered by the word “charity”; my definition would contain a lot of good guidelines, but it wouldn’t really be an accurate definition of how “nice” is used—“nice” is not quite as good as “charity.” (In fact, many of the definitions you used remind of “charity”.)

  6. Also, you ask “Should we be “tolerant” of child pornography?” It’s hard to see, from your definitions, why we shouldn’t. Several of your rules are essentially based on honesty (e.g., Tolerance Does Not Misrepresent… Tolerance Allows People to State their Own Beliefs; It Does Not State it For Them). Dishonestly combating child pornography seems counterproductive to me; why not honestly combat it?

    The place where I see tolerance of being the non-virtuous is when someone is actually tolerating something that they should embrace. For example, “tolerating” racial diversity in your neighborhood. There shouldn’t be any conflict between me and my neighbor simply because we are of different races, thus tolerance is a sign of weakness, not strength. Another example is this: should I be tolerant of Jesus’ beliefs? No, I should embrace those beliefs so that they are my own. (Tolerance in this case might include that over time I become less and less compelled by the promptings of the Spirit to repent until I’m essentially deaf to them—a classic pharmacological use of the word “tolerance”!)

  7. Yes, I think most of the time when we speak of racial tolerance, we actually mean racial acceptance.

    Good thoughts across the board, Brian J. Much to think about.

    Perhaps the question I’m trying to explore is “when we speak of ‘tolerance’ what do we mean?”

  8. I think tolerance, like political correctness, carry different sides to them.
    I like to think that I’m tolerant; in the sense that I understand and acknowledge that I live in a diverse, pluralistic society, and that while we may not agree on everything, I still love you because you’re my brother or sister in Christ, and you deserve respect and dignity. I think that tolerance may also be something that also fits in to your overall philosophy, something important to you personally, that you’re personally invested in. But then there’s the kind of tolerance where it’s simply just the putting up with something because it’s not worth the fight, but the level of respect and consideration to that person, belief, or thing, whatever it may be, isn’t equal to the kind of tolerance you would give something else that more fits in with your worldview.
    Hope that made sense:)
    For example, my dad. I’m an only member of the Church in my family, and he’s tolerant of other religions, beliefs, and opinions of other people because that’s how he is-he recognizes that everyone has rights, they have a right to make choices, decisions, and he will respect them because it’s the right thing to do, and his faith tells him as much, to “do unto others…”
    Now, he tolerates that I’m a Latter-Day Saint, but he still says and asks things that communicate his deep-seated uncertainty about my conversion and baptism. Like today, he asked: “Have you found any contradictions in your study?” and I was like, WTW? “In your study of the Holy Bible; the Book of Mormon isn’t the Bible, you know that right?”
    “Dad, that’s not in our Articles of Faith. We’ve never said that the BOM is the Bible. It’s a companion. And no, I haven’t found any contradictions.”
    But you get my point. He tolerates it, but in a way, misinterprets, minimizes, and criticizes because it doesn’t fit in with his own personal philosophy and religious perspectives. He of course tolerates and accepts me, because I am his personal investment, so he’s tolerant of my being a part of a society of diversity, but he tolerates the fact that I’ve chosen something outside of his frame of reference, and doesn’t quite respect it the way he respects that I am my own person.

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