Our world is getting only more full of people and more interconnected. So in a way, this means our world is actually becoming smaller—we all are being thrust into contact with various types of people, cultures, and behaviors. And this all means that, if we hope to continue living in a smoothly functioning society, each of us must attempt not only to be tolerant of different people and cultures, but also to grapple with the question of what it means to be tolerant.
Having taken some time to do both, I’ve come to some conclusions about what tolerance means to me. First, it involves keeping in mind the humanity of our peers. We must remember that the interests of real people—who, like us, have feelings, goals, friends, families—are at stake when we make many of our choices. These choices can either help other people, or harm them.
Tolerance, then, means actually choosing not to do real harm to people. To be clear, this doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone. But it does mean that we should choose not, with our words and actions, to dehumanize, de facto deprive the rights of, and stigmatize those with whom we disagree. For instance, being tolerant does not require one to attend and cheer at gay weddings if he or she disagrees with gay marriage. It means simply that he does not disturb the weddings themselves, wish bad consequences upon the marrying couple, or say that being gay makes them less human.
Another basic principle of tolerance is that it must apply both ways: I have the right to disagree with you, and you have the right to disagree with me. This is why, in the above case, tolerance permits a gay couple to happily marry, while simultaneously permitting a compatriot to argue that the marriage should not be lawful; after all, if we permit only of those arguments which we favor, we violate somebody’s right to disagree—we violate basic principles of tolerance.
Further, tolerance means acknowledging that you will never fully understand other people, but still attempting to do so. Before disagreeing with a lifestyle, a belief, a behavior, doesn’t it make sense to locate those who actually live, think, or act in these ways? Of course. Being tolerant means attempting to listen—to hear what different people have to say, in the hopes that you can get a clearer picture of where they are coming from.
To me, to be tolerant is, essentially, to do one’s best to uphold those values we hold near and dear: freedom of opinion, freedom of choice, and communality. This makes tolerance not merely a belief or doctrine, but an everyday choice—to acknowledge the humanity of people, refuse to harm them, listen to them, and do your best to understand them.