Most Americans agree that tolerance—the ability to abide an idea or group one does not agree with—is an important virtue. Incidentally, most people also view themselves as tolerant (Putnam, 2010). Research shows that a majority of people believe they exhibit positive values through their lives and actions; this belief holds even among white supremacists and perpetrators of hate crimes (Blee, 1998; Franklin, 1998). Individuals regard themselves as ‘tolerant’ as long as they are not actively, consciously oppressing someone who identifies (or is defined by society) as a member of a minority group (Fritzsche, 2000).
The importance of tolerance—receiving tolerance as well as practicing it—was thrown into sharp relief for me after the birth of my first son in 2013. Joshua was born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition that means in some ways he is a more vulnerable member of our society. For our family, Joshua’s needs have illustrated the difference between tolerance and true acceptance. The former is a kind of bare minimum requirement for engaging in public life; it is allowing another person or group of people to exist. There are adults today, living with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, who were not granted that basic acknowledgement of humanity, immured in institutions for much of their lives. This social legacy persists today behind the veneer of tolerance that is still too often applied to people with disabilities, from polite, pitying smiles and exclusionary policies to education rights waivers and legalized subminimum wages.
Looking past that veneer, it is easier to see similar patterns across our society and social systems. The systemic injustices that continue to plague communities of color, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, women, religious minorities, and others are protected or excused because American society has not progressed beyond being merely tolerant. Most people perceive themselves as “good,” but good intentions are not enough to make that perception a reality. Similarly, being simply “tolerant” is not enough to fully accept people different from oneself into a larger community. Our family has been very fortunate to have worked with people—doctors, therapists, teachers—who do not “tolerate” our precious little boy, but who welcome and accept him. And that acceptance, with the support of his family, is setting him up for a full and happy life.
And that is the critical difference. The ambivalence that lurks within tolerance implies limitation; it suggests that one has done enough (and is good enough) simply because the existence of others is accepted. This is perhaps the uncertain juncture at which many within our society find themselves now: standing between the path forward to greater tolerance and genuine respect and the road back into our society’s legacy of thin and impoverished tolerance, cloaking distrust, violence, and contempt. While recognizing others’ existence is a necessary first step, we as a society can and must build on the opportunities that tolerance provides. It allows for possibilities in interaction, discourse, and understanding that pave the way for greater empathy and mutual respect.