“Tolerance” is a phrase often bandied about in cavalier response to conflicting values, as if simply demanding silent acceptance will make everyone happy. Yet for a society that eulogizes fairness and opportunity, the war on differing values carried out in our nation tells a very different story: one of fundamental misunderstanding of what tolerance truly requires.
As a gay individual from a strongly Roman Catholic family, I have experienced this conflict of values and lack of dialogue on an almost daily basis. Objectors to homosexuality often lack the life experiences to empathize, or even sympathize, with gay individuals, and therefore simply presume themselves to be right. On the other side, the gay community, caught up in the fight against discrimination in search of equal treatment before the law, often neglects to learn the basis for the opposition they face from segments of society such as the church, and subsequently also fail to try to engage them in dialogue.
This is simply one example within a society that understands the definition, but not the purpose, of tolerance. Many of us understand tolerance as “the capacity to endure without adverse reaction.” And, strictly speaking, that’s not inaccurate. But we fail in our efforts at tolerance when we make it the end, rather than the means, for societal progress.
Think of it this way: when you did something to your sibling as a kid and your parents forced you to apologize, did simply saying “sorry” give your apology meaning? Of course not; the point of apologizing is an outward expression of internal regret. Your parents sought to teach more than just words; they sought to teach genuine emotion.
The purpose of tolerance is not to maintain our society in a perpetual ‘feuding family’s Thanksgiving dinner’ situation where everyone knows there’s disagreement at the table, but nobody is willing to address it. Similar to the practice of affirmative action adopted in the 1960s, tolerance is the first step in correcting a fundamental flaw within our society. Before there can be dialogue, there must be the capacity to engage in civil conversation.
But tolerance doesn’t stop at having that conversation. It entails actively engaging ourselves in the endeavor to reach a common understanding. This understanding does not require us to agree on everything. It does not entail adopting the religious, political, societal, or ethical values of individuals we might disagree with on some fundamental level. What it does require is moving past merely recognizing the existence of opposing viewpoints towards a fuller understanding of what that viewpoint is, why it is held, and how we might be able to compromise.
Unfortunately, America’s current political climate strongly endorses a false dichotomy where we are encouraged to believe there are only two options to choose from, and too many of my generation have fallen into the camp ignorant of the potential for a middle ground. Only by actively advocating for tolerance by example can this hostility be properly addressed. So instead of telling your ideological opponent why they’re wrong, ask them why they’re right – you might be surprised.