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#ToleranceMeans having the courage to live alongside someone different from you

Updated: Apr 8

Ben VanBarr, Graduate, TMD Wayne State

Seeing someone live a life that is radically different from yours can be scary. What if they push back against your way of life? What if theirs becomes more common and yours fades into the outlier? What if they know something you don’t? Thoughts like these can lead to intolerance. It takes courage to see their differences, acknowledge those fears, and choose to coexist.

Harder still is working to advocate for tolerance. It seems almost contradictory; by pushing others to be more tolerant, aren’t we being intolerant of their intolerance? I do not believe this is equivalent, but it does lead to problems. Holding up tolerance as a virtue is a good thing, and spreading it where we can is too. We believe that killing is wrong, but tolerance does not require us to refrain from condemning murder; tolerance does not require us to be that tolerant of murderers. Likewise, tolerance does not require us to tolerate intolerance. Indeed, I would argue that working to oppose intolerance is necessary. Like building a tolerance to an allergy, if we tolerate intolerance we will only tolerate more and more of it, leading to less and less tolerance in the world.

The tricky part is drawing the boundaries around intolerance itself, rather than around viewpoints that we associate with intolerance. I have been guilty of making this mistake. As a teenager, I was aggressively atheist. I believed that religion was not only false, but morally repugnant as an institution. By and large, I assumed that all religious people were intolerant in ways that led to wars, discrimination, and similar evils. I failed to recognize that by ascribing these views to religion at large, I was guilty of the same. In the time since, I have acknowledged the weaknesses of my own views, recognized some of the positivity religion can create, and come to terms with the fact that religious people are not the problem – intolerant people are.

Looking at a group that appears to be frequently intolerant, it is easy to label the entire group unworthy of tolerance. Certainly, some groups may be intolerant by definition – the Nazi party and religious extremist groups explicitly claim intolerance as part of their identity. In those cases, maybe there is an exception. But in general, the dividing lines our society looks to – religion, race, citizenship, etc. – are not as divisive as we make them out to be. While many people of faith are intolerant toward the LGBTQ+ community, many others are loving and accepting. While many people harbor hostility toward races other than their own, many others cherish diversity and varied cultures. While many people resent non-citizens, many others empathize with their struggles wish them success.

Tolerance means having the courage to live alongside someone different from you. The more you tolerate something, the more your tolerance of it grows. We can choose; either develop a tolerance for differences or develop a tolerance for intolerance. I choose the former, and I hope you will too.


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