Tolerable Cruelty

Our community newspaper recently ran an article about a Holocaust survivor who had made a visit with his family to a local school, where excerpts from his life story were read to children.  Having had the opportunity to see Elie Wiesel, and to tour the Dachau death camp, I know what power a Survivor has in sharing their story.  It was duly noted that the kids were clearly impacted from the presence and words of this man.  There was also a brief quote from some school official or another, decrying the hideousness of hatred, and espousing the cultural party line about the importance of “practicing tolerance”.

This strikes me as such a horrible statement. 

However, before starting this entry, I went to dictionary.com to look up the definition for tolerance.  I found it interesting that the primary definition for the word has to do with permissiveness towards other views and those who hold them.  This surprised me.  While this certainly is the popular use for the word these days, in my mind, tolerance has to do with permitting or allowing something.  It is a capacity to deal with a situation – or a person – and has always in my mind also implied somewhat of an unpleasantness.  Tolerance is what you practice when you can’t genuinely enjoy or appreciate something.  So it seemed strange that the primary definition has to do with objectiveness and freedom from bigotry.  I wonder if this has always been the traditional, primary definition for the term.  I need to do more research!

Yet a search on the definition of tolerate came up with definitions more along the lines of what I expected.  You tolerate something when you allow it or permit it.  It seems to imply that you don’t *have* to tolerate something or someone, but you choose to.  Further research seems to indicate that tolerance is related to tolerant, as opposed to tolerate.  While dictionary.com is probably not the best source for an exhaustive etymology study, it’s still food for thought.

(In case you’re wondering though, tolerant has the same connotations as tolerate.  While it may be linked in some respect etymologically more to tolerance, definitionally, it has more in common with tolerate.  Frankly, I’ll be shocked and humbled if there is any actual difference in root linguistic source.)

So, until I or someone else proves me incorrect in my definitional assumptions, I’m going to continue to assert that tolerance is not the ideal we should be shooting for as a culture. 

Tolerance is held up as a virtue of the first magnitude now.  It forms consistent thematic backdrops to just about every children’s show I’ve watched in recent years (Sesame Street, etc.).  The words used to explain or define it may differ based on the target age range of the show, but it’s clear that everyone has marching orders that tolerance is what kids need to learn, and learn but good.

But tolerance is such a limiting goal.  Tolerance has more to do with behavior than a way of thinking or feeling.  Tolerance implies nothing beyond an ability to keep our innate attitudes, prejudices, etc. under the surface, out of the way so they don’t impact anyone.  Tolerance seems to me ultimately to be a favor that I extend to other people.  A favor I don’t have to extend, but should.  Tolerance is the result of my self-control and good pleasure, and has nothing to do with the other person. 

What a lousy goal. 

It’s a popular theme that tolerance is one of the many layers of civility that we don to make ourselves feel good, but which is quickly cast aside when times are tough.  Read Heart of Darkness (or watch Apocalypse Now).  Or think back to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.  How long did a veneer of tolerance last?  Tolerance is a luxury that we indulge in, and seems definitionally to imply that such a luxury could quickly be cast aside if things got rough.  I dislike tolerance because tolerance is reliable only so long as the person doing the tolerating is in a good mood, feeling charitable, well-fed and provided for.  When those variables are gone, what happens next?

I much prefer the old fashioned Christian notion of “love thy neighbor”.  Of course, we can’t have that sort of religious claptrap in our classrooms these days.  And yet, even as an atheist – perhaps even especially as an atheist! – I’d choose love thy neighbor over tolerate thy neighbor every day of the week. 

Loving my neighbor requires a change in me.  It indicates that I need to really do some work if I’m going to be able to love that person.  It doesn’t imply that I can keep my specific ideas or preferences or habits intact.  Not if I really want to love that other person.  Loving my neighbor has nothing to do with me.  It’s not a luxury, but a part of who I am.  It means that I can’t just stand back and aloof, permitting the other person to continue existing, but I need to enter into relationship with that person, to seek to know and understand  them so that I can know best how to love them.  You can’t love someone you don’t know and don’t understand.  You might idolize them or lust after them or admire them – but you can’t really love them.

So I’m all for scrapping the whole tolerance agenda.  It gives me the willies.  If you want people to really work, really change, really make an impact on the world, teach them to love.  Teach them to love everyone, even those who are hard to love.  Teach them the distinction between loving someone and accepting everything that person does or says as valid and legitimate and good.  While you’re at it, I’d be all for teaching them the example of love we see in God the Father, and in Jesus the Christ.  But I know that will never fly in public schools.  So leave that off if you must.  But please, preach love, not tolerance. 

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