A word that often comes up when discussing societies with problems is that everyone needs to tolerate those that are different, or hold different beliefs; we need to encourage tolerance, and so on... I was thinking about this, and it seems to me that really, tolerance carries a negative connotation, that in order for something to be tolerated it must be thought of as inferior. So what I'm really asking is how exactly one tolerates something, and is tolerance really a good thing?
It is a question of perspective.
What is the alternative? Assume there is a black guy living in a village with strong KKK-ties. They don't tolerate black people. Tolerance has a component of implying inferiority but what would be the better ending for this story? a) Strange, white people thinking of themselves as superior or b) Strange, white people thinking of themselves as superior standing around a burning cross? I like a) better. Tolerance can be an improvement.
What are you tolerating? Assume there is a black guy living in a village with strong KKK-ties. That's where you live too. If you are tolerant you might say: "Those stupid bedsheets-guys! But I tolerate them. Let them have their primitive human sacrifice rituals!" If you are intolerant you might want to call the police. Now intolerance would be the better choice.
So should you be tolerant? No, never! One has to have a code of values. Everything that goes against this code should not be tolerated. Everything in accordance with that code is not in need for tolerance: There is nothing to be done about it, so it is not depended on one's graceful superiority to don't do something about it.
That should take care of all ethical questions. But what about differences where no moral is involved? Say, your neighbor likes to cook astonishing gross smelling food. Should you tolerate it? Depends: Are you a confrontative person? Or are you always trying to please everyone? Do you think bringing it up could endanger the otherwise good neighborliness? However it does not depend on religion or ethnicity. So what's the use of tolerance here? Can you live with the smell or not [btw: did I mention the neighbor is an English exchange-student]?
I do think tolerance is a virtue. But I agree with the question when implies that tolerance and acceptance are not the same thing.
In other words, you never tolerate a good thing. A good thing is accepted, cherished, and even loved. On the other hand, you always tolerate something which is less than good --- and given that different people have different perspectives on what is good, tolerance is very sorely needed whenever diversity is great.
But, why should someone tolerate that which is less than good? Why not demand the good exclusively, and accept no deviation? Well, the answer to this question is why tolerance is a virtue --- something to be embraced. Since all of us have different ideas as to what constitutes the good, if we all were to not accept any less than full and unadulterated good, we would be forever fighting with each other --- perhaps even violently, leading to many a death.
Therefore, this is why we embrace tolerance. Because by tolerating that which is less than good --- that is, by tolerating a small evil, or an imperfect good ---, we avoid the greater evil of fighting each other over perfection. In other words, tolerance should be put in service of the common good. And you always tolerate a small evil, never a great evil. Sometimes (but very rarely) it is better to be intolerant about a great evil, as @Einer points out.
And how do we know the difference of when to be intolerant about an evil? This involves prudence. Generally speaking, if tolerance leads to an injustice about as great or greater than the act of punching each other over truth, then tolerance will not do, and it is time to act on the good and for the sake of the good. In other words, what are the consequences of sticking to the good vs. the consequences of tolerating the evil? Which consequences are more acceptable?
Like all terms in ordinary language, including political discourse, 'toleration' is not a univocal term. Someone who is 'tolerant' or 'believes in toleration' might just be someone without strong convictions or firm preferences who lets the world go by, too uninvolved to care about anything.
Or, as Peter Jones points out, there is a more positive connotation. 'Toleration' is now sometimes used in a more generous sense to mean a readiness to accept and positively to value social diversity, rather than merely a willingness to end. (Peter Jones, 'Making Sense of Political Toleration', British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), pp. 383-402 : 384, note 2.)
The term still bears a fairly distinct, and third sense, in political theory, however. This is well brought out by Peter Jones :
Two conceptual features of toleration
Two standard conceptual features of toleration are particularly relevant to this exercise. First, toleration in its orthodox sense entails disapproval or dislike. We tolerate only that to which we object; if we find something unobjectionable, we have no occasion to tolerate it. Thus, when people conform to the model case of toleration, they are usually thought to possess two sorts of reason: (a) a reason for objecting to and so for preventing x and (b) a reason for not preventing x. Their reason not to prevent x overrides their reason to prevent it; hence they tolerate x.
Secondly, we can tolerate only what we are able to prevent. If we object to x, but are powerless to prevent it, we cannot tolerate x. Toleration exists only when intolerance is an option. We can adopt a tolerant stance or possess a tolerant disposition even though we are powerless; that is, we might resolve not to prevent x even if we could. But, strictly, we actually tolerate x only if we are actually able to prevent x but opt not to do so.
The phrase 'political toleration' might be used to describe toleration exercised within a political process. We might observe, for example, that, since disagreement, debate and contestation for power are essential features of democracy, so too is political toleration, even though, curiously, the give-and-take that is essential to a democratic process is rarely considered under the heading of toleration. Here, however, I mean 'political toleration' to have a broader meaning. It describes toleration secured through the apparatus of the state. Thus, for example, both religious toleration and cultural toleration fall within the compass of political toleration in so far as they are forms of toleration secured by the state. We might describe political toleration in this sense as 'public' toleration since it is toleration secured by and through a society's public authority and public arrangements. Thus 'private' toleration is toleration afforded by one individual or group to another without its being routed through the state. If, for example, a household plays loud music which neighbouring households find objectionable but which they nevertheless resolve to endure, their toleration is 'private'. Their toleration is 'public' in the sense that both the objectionable noise and the toleration goes beyond a private household, but it is not 'public' in the sense intended here in that it is not secured by way of public authority. (Peter Jones, 'Making Sense of Political Toleration', British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), pp. 383-402 : 384-5.)
So what is it to be tolerated ?'
For someone or something, X, to be tolerated X must be disapproved of or disliked but also considered not appropriate or right to prevent, suppress, curtail or eliminate. Also X must be something we could prevent, suppress, curtail or eliminate, if we chose.
Peter Jones, 'Making Sense of Political Toleration', British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), pp. 383-402.
John Horton & Susan Mendus, Aspects of Toleration, ISBN 10: 0416392903 / ISBN 13: 9780416392906. Published by Methuen, 1985.
Glen Newey, Toleration in Political Conflict, ISBN 10: 1107040329 / ISBN 13: 9781107040328 Published by Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Michael Walzer, On Toleration (Castle Lectures Series), ISBN 10: 0300070195 / ISBN 13: 9780300070194 Published by Yale University Press, 1997.
The concept of tolerance (taking a broad-minded view of others’ opinions and beliefs, from the Latin tolerantia, or endurance) was devised by racists and other unenlightened people.
The world is organized in such a way that it requires variety in order to exist, and it is the combination of this variety that creates all the imaginable and unimaginable shades of life.
The three primary colors – blue, red, and green – when combined produce an array of hundreds of millions of shades.
The four basic temperaments – choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic – when combined produce the planet’s 7 billion people.
The different races combine to define what we now call humankind.
The laws of physics – the law of gravity, the law of conservation of energy – combine to give us the world as we know it and to which we have adapted.
Thus, tolerance is an imprecise and even harmful concept.
See how polite this sounds: “I am tolerant of others’ opinions,” “I am tolerant of others’ skin color,” “I am tolerant of others’ religion.” But see how stupid this sounds: “I am tolerant of the color blue,” “I am tolerant of the law of gravity.”
See how polite this sounds: “I am tolerant of others’ opinions,” “I am tolerant of others’ skin color,” “I am tolerant of others’ religion.”
But see how stupid this sounds: “I am tolerant of the color blue,” “I am tolerant of the law of gravity.”
Instead of tolerance, the correct word is awareness.
I am aware that the law of gravity is an integral part of the general laws of nature. I have to adapt to this law in order to survive and grow.
I am aware that the color blue (and the colors green and red) are an integral part of the color palette. I have to accept this as truth.
I am aware that other people’s skin color, religion, personality, manners, and ethnicity are an integral part of humankind and its development.
These things will always exist, whether or not I am tolerant of them. I can only choose to be aware of them and accept them as truth.