Toleration, the Cracking Stone

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In my teens and twenties, I didn’t think much of the concept of toleration. It seemed condescending, grudging, arcane. Along with many others, I thought: Don’t give me toleration, give me love and acceptance. It took me decades to understand what toleration really was. I now see it as fundamental to government, basic relationships, and intellectual life; take it away, and you have factions trying to destroy each other.

Toleration is complex, contradictory, and fraught, and it can take a variety of forms. For now, I will focus on what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls the “respect component” of toleration: the idea that “even though they differ fundamentally in their ethical beliefs about the good and true way of life and in their cultural practices, citizens recognize one another as moral-political equals in the sense that their common framework of social life should—as far as fundamental questions of rights and liberties and the distribution of resources are concerned—be guided by norms that all parties can equally accept and that do not favor one specific ethical or cultural community.” In other words, to live together in a country or other entity, all parties respect each other as equals within a common ethical framework. This framework typically involves an idea of personal liberty.

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty works with this conception of toleration. According to Mill, to tolerate is to recognize each individual’s liberty to live as he or she pleases, as long as this does not impinge on the liberty of others. Such liberty benefits not only the individual, but society, which can learn and benefit from the range of opinions and ways of life. In Mill’s view, one can go far in one’s own choices before truly interfering with others; for instance, in his view, a person should not be punished for drinking, only for harmful actions that the drinking has induced. This is one of the most controversial aspects of his argument (and of toleration itself): at what point are you hurting others, and at what point are you not?

But such considerations come later. First, let us look at the merits of toleration as a basic principle. To do this, we must discard the idea that toleration is sufficient for human life. Few people, if any, can live on tolerance alone. Most of us need more than that: not only love and affection, but instruction, correction, and challenge. Treated as the sole principle of life (“live the way you wish, but leave me alone”), it condemns us to isolation. But take it away, and you have something even more dangerous. You have Trump firing those who dared to testify in the impeachment hearings; you have people “cancelling” each other online (and in some cases wrecking their careers and lives).

Toleration comes to this: You may not love me, or even like me. I may not love you, or even like you. We may not agree on all things. We may have profound differences in our beliefs and ways of life. But while we may try to persuade each other, we also recognize each other’s right to exist as we are. We will not bully each other, willfully hurt each other, or try to overpower each other. This agreement is mutual, full, and unconditional (within this framework). It is not contingent on one person being converted to the other’s way.

It is difficult in that most of us believe (at least at times) that we are right and others are wrong. Not only that, but this is often the case. How can you tolerate someone whom you see as wrong? Aren’t you under obligation to show this person the light and demand some kind of awakening?

No. “Awakening” loses all meaning if it is demanded. Moreover, even when we are right, we have things to learn, and the lessons can come from surprising places.

In my freshman year in college, in the spring of 1982 (when I had just turned 18–I was a year younger than most of the others), a friend came out to me and others as gay. His roommates decided that they did not want to room with him the following year. I felt terrible for him and decided I would try to help. So one evening I walked over to their quad and knocked on the door. One of his roommates was home. I began to talk to him, thinking I was doing something good and brave.

We talked for two or three hours; it was late when I left. The roommate explained to me that he didn’t have anything against my friend but that he had been taught, all his life, that homosexuality was wrong, and he could not get rid of that feeling overnight. Maybe he would change over time, he said, but rooming with my friend at this point would be too much. He talked about his religious upbringing, his understanding of relationships, and his awareness that his views might change. I found, to my surprise, a principled and open person, a person who was questioning himself while also staying true to who he was. Some might scoff at that. But I look back on this conversation as one of the great lessons of my life.

I have had similar lessons in politics and religion. The person who seems to be on the bad or wrong side (from your perspective) may be one of the most trustworthy people you will ever meet. The person may even become your ally or friend. Sometimes the best of friends–like Gilgamesh and Enkidu–are the ones who have battled each other, because they see each other’s strength, they are not trying to reduce the other to a version of themselves.

There are famous histories and stories of friends who disagreed about everything, for whom the disagreement was itself a sign of respect. G. K. Chesterton’s exuberant novel The Ball and the Cross is in part about two men, a Catholic and an atheist Socialist, who, after dueling each other at great length and risk, realize that they have something in common: their belief in the importance of these questions.

This kind of toleration is not grudging, haughty, or hypocritical; to the contrary, it requires a willingness to set grudges, haughtiness and superiority aside. The people involved do not have to be friends; they do not even have to know each other. Toleration can exist among strangers.

So why is it in such disrepair? Part of the reason is that it isn’t taught adequately. People are encouraged instead to take positions and stick to them. One terrible disadvantage of the debate format–which is taught all around the world, and which I include in some of my lessons–is that it turns into an exercise in proving oneself right, instead of coming closer to truth. It often doesn’t allow for a middle ground or for a subtle view, unless this is deliberately worked in. It tends to reinforce the belief that those people on the other side of the room are wrong. Debate has its place as a skill and exercise, but it cannot be the prevailing form of conversation.

Another reason is that social media has made it easy for people to join up with others who share their views. Then attacking the other side becomes a matter of course. When you can’t see the other person, you forget that this actually is a person. People get some kind of instant satisfaction from putting down people whom they will never have to face.

Yet another reason (related to the second) is that the people making the most noise appear to represent more people than they actually do; many quieter views go ignored, and many people resist speaking up because they know they will just be flailed.

But the fourth (and most important) reason for the disrepair is that toleration does not come easily. It is not immediately understood. It is never a fully settled matter, since what one person considers personal choice, another sees as an imposition or violation. The lines of liberty necessarily shift; it is on us to determine when an action is going too far, but to tend, as much as possible, toward generosity. Toleration is not something that one “has” or doesn’t have. It must be built, repaired, renovated, and inhabited, and the work does not end.

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1 Comment

  1. “One terrible disadvantage of the debate format–which is taught all around the world, and which I include in some of my lessons–is that it turns into an exercise in proving oneself right, instead of coming closer to truth.”

    Extremely well put. Debates are won by the best debaters, not the best arguments.

    Reply

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