One of the great inventions of the post-industrial revolution era is the steel I-beam. The I-beam works because it leverages pieces that face in different and opposite directions. Two thin steel “flanges” run parallel with each other, with a perpendicular steel “web” connecting the two and running the distance between them. It gets its name because when viewed in a cross section the metal pieces make an “I”. The I-beam is such an ingenious piece of engineering because compared to traditional steel beams the I-beam is made up of much less steel without sacrificing any of its strength. This means I-beams can be used in large construction projects, spanning vast distances and supporting weight that would otherwise be impossible.
Tolerance plays a similar role. In our democracy there are as many different viewpoints and opinions as there are participants. Although these differences have notably been the source of friction in our society, they are what gives our democracy strength. Differences in opinion, experience, perspective, and values strengthen us the same way different sizes and skills strengthen a football team. Tolerance is what allows these differences to help us, not hurt us.
Tolerance means respect, patience, and civility. It means not portraying those we disagree with as strawmen and extending a hand of intellectual charity. In short, tolerance means having sympathy and empathy. For example, a person who believes in faith-healing is tolerant when she tries to understand the motives of those who disagree with her. She is tolerant when instead of assuming that her ideological opponents are out to diligently chip away at her God-given freedoms, she sees that what they really want is for the State to fulfill its obligations to protect all of its citizens. Conversely, tolerance means that someone who believes children should be given the best healthcare available does not oversimplify the views of those who practice faith healing. Such an advocate realizes that faith-healing proponents have sincere, heartfelt religious beliefs and are frightened that their own government would make them choose between practicing their religion or prison. Until opposing sides can see from one another’s perspective, we will be sincerely limited in making the progress we are capable of.
My wife’s grandfather is one of the smartest men I have ever known. He was an actual rocket scientist during the cold war and later worked with the Idaho National Laboratory. Naturally, he saw life through an engineer’s lens. One of his wise observations delivered in engineering terms that has always stuck with me is “ethics are the grease that lubricate the gears of society—without them everything would grind to a halt.” I do not pretend to have even a fraction of the knowledge Grandpa has of the physical sciences, or his wisdom about people, but I see another parallel between the engineering world and human interaction: “Tolerance is the I-beam that spans the vast distances of democracy. It embraces our differences to make us better than we would be on our own.”
#ToleranceMeans disagreeing with others, but truly understanding why they disagree with us.