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#tolerancemeans that you respect other people as humans

Pedro Prola, Graduate, NOVA School of Law

November 28, 2023

The concept and practice of tolerance have flourished in the field of Religion, in a time when faith assumed a role so important as divisive in life and society. Tolerance meant a choice for coexistence among people of different religions. Latter, tolerance developed into something more – something political, cultural and social. Today, one might refer to tolerance of different world views, different ways of life, different cultural and artistic expressions, as well as tolerance of different religions and belief systems.

Pedro Prola

Tolerance is a relative, moral and political concept. As German philosopher Rainer Forst explains, tolerance is a decision you make relative to a conduct of another person – a belief, action or practice you do not agree with and which you might even consider to be deeply wrong; but, for some reason, you choose not to condemn nor repress it. You might even consider it wrong not to tolerate it. And you might actually encourage a conduct you personally disagree with. So, talking about tolerance, there are always two components: objection and acceptance. For that reason, tolerance should not be misjudged as moral cowardice, relativism or skepticism.

It should be noted that prejudice is never a component of a tolerant conduct. Someone cannot be tolerant (or intolerant) towards black people – expressing such “tolerance” actually constitutes racism. The same way, someone cannot be tolerant (or intolerant) towards LGBT people – expressing such “tolerance” actually constitutes LGBTphobia. The way to overcome prejudice is not tolerance, but rather knowledge and recognition. Tolerance always demands a previous reasoning about a conduct rationally valued either as wrong or negative – not color, gender, or sexual orientation.

Reasoning is essential for tolerance. It means you think about the things you don’t agree with. Instead of simply rejecting them, you reflect on the fact you disagree with them and why you do. The reasons for tolerance are moral and political: you valuate positively the right to think or act in different ways. This separates tolerance from indifference.

One might say there is an inclination for tolerance or a tolerant environment in a society. However, tolerance is always based on concrete decisions and reasonings related to the conduct of other people. In a democratic society, tolerance does not mean agreement. You may express disagreement with political views you object to – and yet tolerate them, because you believe other people have the right to disagree with you. By disagreeing, you are not suggesting the ideas you contest should be forbidden.

A contemporary defence of tolerance as a means to foster social cohesion in a pluralistic society must reject a merely passive conception of non-interference, which would be compatible with discrimination. In that sense, tolerance must be understood in connection with difference and recognition. It is not enough to know that people are different – it is also necessary to recognise them as subjects and respect them as human beings. In that sense, tolerance is an essential element which operates in the context of human diversity and equality.


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