Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tolerance is not a value in itself

Occasionally I see someone preaching the virtue of tolerance without specifying what is to be tolerated. This is a lot like leaving "racial" out of the phrase "racial discrimination". "Racial discrimination" has managed to nudge other kinds of discrimination out of our minds, so that it is nearly the case that "discrimination"="racial discrimination" and we must find a new word to replace the old neutral meaning of the word used by itself. A complicating example occurs to me - "gender discrimination" - which might, in the right context, give its meaning to the word "discrimination" by itself. But this just emphasizes the other part of my point, which is that "discrimination" used to mean something like "differentiation" or "categorization", it used to lack its current negative connotation. So now, when a speaker wants to express the idea, for instance, that someone has recognized and taken action based on the relevant difference between two species of ant, it sounds odd or even incomprehensible to use the word "discrimination" or "discriminate", yet I can't think of a word that has come into common use to replace these.

Similarly, "tolerance", on its own, is no virtue. No one wants to tolerate murder, theft, rape, or arson. Racism is not tolerated and should not be. To make our meaning clear, we need to use "tolerance" in a phrase that specifies what is tolerated (such as "religious tolerance," "racial tolerance", or "ideological tolerance"), or perhaps better, just think in different terms entirely.

Does the idea of tolerance imply a yes/no evaluation, or is there more of a spectrum? Two values, tolerable or intolerable, or a range from "very tolerable" through "tolerable" to "not very tolerable" to "sort of intolerable" to "intolerable"?

The best use of "tolerance" I can think of is when someone does something unwise or mildly unethical, something of which I disapprove but not the sort of thing that makes me want to call the cops or run away or look for a big stick to defend myself with. So if someone does something stupid or rude, I may tolerate it without approving of it. In this sense, I would prefer to live in a society that tolerated drug addiction - I don't approve, but there is nothing I can do about it in a reasonable way. And I hope and expect that such a society would be better prepared to discover effective and nonaggressive means to help addicts cope with their problems.

I applaud writers' tendency to simplify ideas, and certainly language evolves as we use it. So I feel a bit embarrassed to bring this all up. But sometimes clarity and simplicity take opposing sides, and this time at least, I vote for clarity.

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