The Problem with “Tolerance”

The problem with “tolerance” is that it is fundamentally a disconnect. It sets up a negative relationship. The meaning communicated by the statement, “I will tolerate you (or whomever),” is dismissive and condescending. Yet, we act as if “tolerance” is the goal of a civilized society. Children are taught to be tolerant of one another. We set “tolerance” as a goal is schools. In many families, the same sort of sense of tolerance is taught and modeled.

The opposite of tolerance is intolerance. Binaries may be the key to set up all sorts of dynamic systems, this particular binary seems to set up a rather frightening and dysfunctional system of dismissiveness and hatred. There is no real part of this binary that is particularly healthy psychologically or socially.

What our societies should be striving for is “appreciating,” “valuing,” and “respecting” others across various kinds of difference. And, we need to appreciate, value, and respect difference, itself, and variation or diversity. Appreciating, valuing, and respecting set up a different dynamic. This dynamic doesn’t delve deeply into negativity. Here the oppositional binaries are (a) appreciate–underrate (deprecate), (b) value–disregard, and (c) respect–disrespect. Although still negative, that end of these binaries do not quite hold the virulence of intolerance, like that being enacted on the streets of countries around the world.

With these binaries, we don’t even need to like “the other,” but we can appreciate, value, and respect them. I have had many teachers and professors whom I didn’t like, but I did appreciate what they taught me and the effort they put into teaching me, even if they did a poor job of it. I may not agree with the beliefs of someone from another culture, but I can appreciate that person and value their belief system. And, I can respect that person for whomever they are.

Appreciating, valuing, and respecting are the three ways of developing and maintaining relationships that we should be teaching in schools around the world. These ways of relating are going to become increasing important as the pressures of population growth and global warming put people into very tough situations. We will need to cooperate and collaborate, not fight with and kill one another. But, these also are the skills necessary to succeed in the the workplace and in democratic societies.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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