On Tolerance (It May Not Be What You Think)

I’m extremely worried about the growing power of hatred and intolerance in the United States right now. I imagine you’re worried too. Every day, the headlines seem to evince a swift march toward an increasingly frightening future for our country: the growing influence of neo-nazi ideology, deeply concerning supreme court decisions, children being torn from parents and whole families being imprisoned for seeking asylum or simply a better life… It’s almost too much to comprehend.

So I’ve been asking: How can I make sense of what’s going on? How did we get here in the first damn place? And how can I possibly be part of changing the trajectory we’re on to something better?

I’m trying to crack into these big questions simply at this point, by seeking clarity of terms. By clarifying the language I use – even if just with myself – I at least have some words to properly think with. A lot of the rhetoric out there right now is really heated and disorienting, chock-full of super-charged buzzwords. I want to cut through the malarkey and try to clear up at least one little word right now. That word is tolerance. Tolerance may not be what you think.

Here’s what I’d like to shout from the rooftops: Tolerance (much like civility) isn’t a personal virtue; it’s an interpersonal contract. As an interpersonal contract, tolerance cannot be practiced when you are alone; it requires the participation of another party. It takes two to tango.


In an oft-quoted footnote to The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper described tolerance as a “paradox.” To paraphrase (perhaps badly, but judge for yourself), Popper explains that the society that abides by the principle of complete tolerance – therefore allowing tolerance of even the most violently and oppressively intolerant – paradoxically ends in self-destruction, because eventually the most heinously intolerant take advantage of the overly tolerant around them to crush whomever they choose, establishing a fundamentally intolerant society. Whoopsie.

That said, since paradoxes strike me as kind of abstract brainteasers offering little by way of guidance for operating in the world (thanks, Popper), I think it’s much more useful to think of tolerance as a contract between groups and individuals. Contracts come with responsibilities. They require reciprocity. What this means is that in a tolerant society, when some individual or group starts preaching hatred, exclusion, and annihilation of others, they’re essentially busy tearing up the contract, and the rest of us are no longer under the same obligation to keep honoring its terms toward that individual or group. We may have other social obligations toward that individual or group, sure, but not tolerance equivalent to that extended before the breach of contract.

If we are to maintain a society that remains functionally tolerant in the long run, I would argue that we are obligated to call for restoration of our contract. Precisely how to achieve the restoration of tolerance is a real conundrum (perhaps better called a “wicked problem“). But I’m certain that just quietly upholding your side of a delicate social contract while your neighbor Pepeface McFashypants actively tramples all over it isn’t going to achieve it.

I believe that all people who truly value tolerance – or much better yet, inclusion, welcoming, and cooperation – are needed on deck right now. If this is you, your voice is needed right now. Your creativity is needed right now. Your labor is needed right now. It’s likely going to take an extraordinary multiplicity of strategies to achieve a world we can all live in, so I really think there’s room for everyone to contribute. You can share your ideas, your energy, your time, and money. There are many organizations doing excellent work around tolerance, inclusion, welcoming, and cooperation – I recommend finding them and supporting them.

And remember: when you find yourself surrounded by tyrannical and hateful behavior, don’t be too “tolerant” if you want tolerance to last.

Tolerance: It can’t happen in a vacuum. (Image from https://ourplnt.com.)

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