Friday, September 30, 2011

Hitchcock: What Does It Mean to Be Tolerant?

Editor's Note: The following article was submitted to the Idaho State Journal by Professor Leonard Hitchcock and appears here with his permission. Part 2 will be available in the coming days.


The word “tolerance” has often been bandied about in letters and op-ed pieces in the Idaho State Journal, most recently in connection with a letter that rather forcefully attacked Pocatello’s gay pride celebration and those who advocate the elimination of prayer at city council meetings.

It seems to be generally agreed by users of the word that it is a good thing to be tolerant and a bad thing to be intolerant. But beyond this general sense of approval or disapproval, it’s hard to discern exactly what the words are intended to convey.

What is it to be a “tolerant” person? It’s not implausible to think that the ideally tolerant person is one who values human diversity and hence accepts, or perhaps even welcomes, behaviors and beliefs that differ from his or her own. Such a person could be said to have, at a minimum, a “live-and-let-live attitude” or, more probably, to agree with that memorable expression from the sixties and cheerfully acknowledge that there are “different strokes for different folks.”

Yet the preceding conception of what tolerance amounts to may not find favor among many. The notion that a tolerant person must take a positive view of other people’s differing behaviors and beliefs may seem excessive, if not downright wrong-headed. It might be thought more accurate to say that a tolerant person should be non-judgmental about such things. There is a local church that advertises itself as “less judgmental,” which seems to mean the same thing as “more tolerant.” So perhaps all that is required is that a tolerant person refuse to make judgments or form opinions. This does, indeed, echo traditional Christian advice from the pulpit, such as “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” yet, in practice, it is difficult advice to follow, for more often than not, we form judgments quickly and involuntarily. It’s important to notice, here, that the discussion is now focused upon negative judgments. From the present perspective, it is the disapproval of others upon which tolerance crucially depends, not the acceptance of them.

But if it’s true that our minds are so plentifully supplied with categories of wrong-doing and wrong-believing that we rarely undergo a conscious decision-making process when making negative judgments, and hence that withholding judgment is not really an option, what, then, can being tolerant consist in? The obvious answer is: in not expressing those judgments.

In giving this answer, we have entered a very ancient current of moral thought.
We’ve reached two conclusions regarding tolerance: 1) the person who is being tolerant must disapprove of or dislike the thing, person, or behavior being tolerated, and 2) the tolerant person must intentionally refraining from “acting out” that disapproval. That puts tolerance within the traditional domain of “virtuous” behaviors, since at the heart of “virtue” is a willingness and ability to exercise control over certain appetites and urges. The courageous person suppresses fear and carries out his or her duty on the battlefield; the temperate person reins in the desire for food and drink; the generous person overcomes selfishness, the honest person fights off the urge to lie. And the tolerant person restrains the desire to act out feelings of anger and disapproval.

It is, at the same time, an odd consequence of this way of thinking about virtues that the degree of praiseworthiness of virtuous behavior is directly proportional to the strength of the urges that are suppressed. Hence, one who naturally feels little fear deserves less credit for courageous behavior than one who experiences intense terror and is able to conquer it. From that same perspective, the most virtuously tolerant person is someone who manages to exercise restraint while harboring the deepest and most passionately hostile feelings and opinions. That easy-going, live-and-let-live sort of person we discussed earlier is definitely not going to shine in the tolerance department.

Another interesting component of the concept of tolerance, consistent with its being a virtue, is that it can be overdone; that is to say, it’s possible to be too tolerant. Most people agree that one must not tolerate that which is a serious moral wrong, nor, in most cases, that which is not legally permissible. Unfortunately not much more can be said than that, because there is evidently great disagreement among people about exactly which behaviors are morally intolerable, and even about what circumstances might render law-breaking acceptable.

Many questions remain about the nature of tolerance, e.g.: exactly what degree of restraint is sufficient to merit the label “tolerant?”; why are the histories of tolerance and religion so closely intertwined?; and how does tolerance relate to freedom of speech? I will address these questions in a future column.

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