Cultural Rights (14): Tolerance, a Model

To be tolerant means to accept the existence of and to avoid interfering coercively with beliefs, actions or practices that you consider wrong and objectionable. It means that you do your best to co-exist with people who are very much different from you, and different in a negative sense. You allow or permit these people to remain who they are and what they are. You consider what they are, what they do and what they believe to be wrong and objectionable, but not wrong enough to be intolerable and subject to prohibition, legal or otherwise. You tolerate them because you believe that what they do or believe should not be prohibited, or perhaps because you believe you’re not in a position to effectively prohibit. However, I would personally prefer to call the latter option “endurance” rather than tolerance and limit tolerance to the voluntary acceptance of things you could prohibit if you wanted to.

“Acceptance” here should of course be understood, not in the sense of a positive moral judgment, approval or agreement, but in the sense of a practical, pragmatical accommodation. The negative judgment remains but isn’t strong enough to warrant repression or prohibition.

We may decide to tolerate something for a variety of reasons:

  • We may have a strong general sense of respect for other people and for their identity. We may respect people’s moral standing as agents able to choose their own vision of the good life. We disagree with their choices but we respect them as agents able to choose.
  • We may be motivated simply by a general respect for the law, and the law happens to prescribe tolerance.
  • We may believe that tolerance is necessary for the preservation of civil peace and public order, and these considerations outweigh our disgust for other lifestyles. In other words, we hate conflict more than we hate other people.
  • We may be motivated by an expectation of reciprocity: if we show tolerance we expect to be tolerated. Maybe our own group isn’t in the majority either, or risks not being a majority in the future, and hence we may some day profit from tolerance.
  • We may believe, as did John Stuart Mill, that even false opinions lead to social learning.
  • Etc.

Those reasons can imply either equal or unequal relationships between those who tolerate and those who are tolerated.

Below I offer my own petty model of tolerance. I situate tolerance on a continuum going from what I call guidance on one side to prohibition on the other. Guidance means the attitude of emulating certain practices which you view as being important enough to guide your life and your fundamental opinions. Prohibition, the other extreme, means the attitude of suppressing certain practices which you view as being so depraved that they should be forbidden and eliminated, if necessary with violence.

One level below guidance I situate the attitude which I call positive acceptance. People accept things in a positive way if they consider them to be moral, but not necessarily moral enough to be the guiding light of life. One level below positive acceptance is indifference, which marks the boundary between things that are moral and things that are immoral.

Below indifference is negative acceptance, which means viewing things as being immoral yet not immoral enough to suppress them using the law or any other violent means. As stated above, I distinguish between two types of negative acceptance, endurance and tolerance, the difference being that tolerance means accepting something and yet having the ability to suppress. Endurance means you tolerate despite not wanting to tolerate: you tolerate because you don’t have a choice. If you had the power to suppress or prohibit, you would. You don’t suppress or prohibit and you tolerate because you don’t have the power to suppress or prohibit. Real tolerance means that you have that power but voluntarily choose not to use it, for any (combination) of the reasons mentioned above.

Some would also call endurance a type of tolerance. Personally, I want to keep it separate. (Which is why it is in light gray rather than dark gray in the image below). I distinguish three types of tolerance: people can tolerate things unconditionally, they can tolerate things if they happen only in private, or they can tolerate things that happen in public but only conditionally.

I also place all these attitude, including tolerance, on a moral scale, assuming that people decide to accept, reject, tolerate or prohibit acts or beliefs according to the moral value they attach to these acts or beliefs.


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