Clarifying Tolerance: Fallacies & Paradoxes

What is tolerance? What does it mean to be tolerant? And what exactly is it that should be tolerated?

On the surface, tolerance seems like a fairly simple and straightforward concept. But one need only read the comment section of any news story or social media post on human rights to see that in application, tolerance is a confusing concept for some.

In an effort to remain aware of differing perspectives and points of view (however frustrating they may be), I admit that I often peruse the comment sections of articles and posts on pressing social issues. For the purposes of this article, we’ll consider comments made on a 2019 Facebook post discussing Ellen Page’s remarks about Mike Pence. During her interview with Stephen Colbert, she expressed her disdain over people in power using said power to hate on others, underscoring an important social reality: Elected officials influence policy, and policy influences real people, and so, elected officials who make a concerted effort to limit the rights of specific groups of people are more likely to be successful in such attacks. In other words, when certain people hate, it has a real impact.

Ellen Page’s comments were heroic, and they were emboldening. They needed to be said. Mike Pence has a long history of actively attempting to restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ people, going so far as to publicly endorse the very dangerous practice of conversion therapy. His wife has also returned to teaching at a Christian school which blatantly refuses to admit LGBTQ+ students and hire LGBTQ+ teachers. (This was the wife of the vice-president of the United States in 2019.)

To me it’s all fairly obvious: One person is actively working to restrict the rights and freedoms of others, and one of the “others” in question is responding accordingly, with the goal of simply living without such attacks—free of hate. Yet not everyone sees a difference, as was illustrated in a Facebook comment by Mike Garcia from California, who said, “So it’s ok to condemn when you’re feeling condemned???” I responded to this comment and pointed out the difference in behaviour, to which Mike replied, “Sounds like you are one of those people that don’t tolerate intolerance, which makes you intolerant.”

I admit that on the surface, such an argument could be convincing to some. It is a common counterargument made in these kinds of debates by those who ultimately sympathize with haters and bigots. It is a suggestion that true tolerance must mean tolerating everyone and everything, including those who attack and limit the rights of others. It is an argument I’ve seen taken so far as to suggest that neo-Nazis should be tolerated, racism itself must be tolerated, and actual acts of exclusion and discrimination must be tolerated (often in the name of religious freedom, but that’s another issue).

So, I thought it would be helpful to examine tolerance in a bit more detail, and get a few things straight about what tolerance is, and what it is not…

1. As a goal or policy in social and political discourse, it needs to be noted that tolerance does NOT mean tolerance of everything and anything all of the time. This absolute and unequivocal notion of tolerance is not what anyone means. Think about it for a minute: There are MANY things we do not tolerate in society. For example, we do not tolerate murder, and by extension we do not tolerate people who are inclined to murder. We do not tolerate pedophilia either, or child marriage, or domestic abuse, despite many people feeling inclined to engage in such acts. We live in a society in which many behaviours, and the people who engage in them, are deemed unacceptable. Why? Because in all of these cases (and in MANY other examples), the rights of others are being violated. A psychopath is a psychopath because of internal traits that are largely beyond conscious control, innately determined, yet we do not accept the behaviour. We do not tolerate it. The argument that in order to be truly tolerant one must tolerate those who violate the rights of others is a straw man. It is a fallacy in reasoning. No one is defining tolerance that way to begin with.

2. We are perhaps left with the question of to whom or what tolerance actually refers, if it does not refer to anyone and everything. Well, historically the term has been used to refer specifically to marginalized and oppressed groups of people. The suggestion to be more tolerant is NOT a suggestion to be more tolerant in general, but to be more tolerant of those who are different and who have been marginalized because of their differences. It is not a suggestion to minority groups to be more tolerant of the majority, but indeed the opposite—it is a specific suggestion to the majority to be more tolerant of minorities and the perceived differences they possess. It is, in essence, a call for equality, and for an end to discrimination.

3. Now that we’ve settled on the who, let’s talk about the what: Tolerance is NOT a call for tolerance of all attitudes and behaviours in general. No one is saying that idiotic or disparaging comments should be tolerated, or that people should get away with hurtful or even deceptive behaviour. (Does anyone really believe that lying should be tolerated, for example?) What is being encouraged is tolerance of unchangeable qualities and traits; tolerance of who people ARE, not necessarily what they say or think. A black person cannot control their blackness just as a gay person cannot control their gayness. Gender, age, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, and gender identity—these are immutable and enduring aspects of a person. They are either present at birth or largely directed by genetic and physiological forces. To equate the tolerance of a person’s bisexuality with the tolerance of a straight man’s feelings of hate or disgust towards bisexuality is a blatant fallacy. On one hand, we are talking about who a person is; on the other, we are talking about what a person thinks or feels. Thoughts and feelings are malleable; indeed they change all of the time.

On this point, it is possible to encounter a problem in discourse or debate. For those who believe that being gay or trans is a choice (the result of attitudes and mindset), it will be difficult to understand the difference. To some, these qualities do not reflect who a person is, but instead what they choose to do. This adds an additional burden that must be overcome in order for some to understand the true meaning of tolerance. (But let me say now that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the only choice we make is to either be who we are or conform. These things are in our DNA.)  

4. Perhaps most importantly, there is also a fundamental problem with the notion of tolerating intolerance. The 20th century philosopher Karl Popper, in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, described the paradox of tolerance: “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” Although Popper notes that we should be tolerant of differing opinions for the sake of discourse, he argues that we must respond to intolerance swiftly and adequately and suppress it, in order to prevent the decay of a tolerant society. Here’s the problem: If we tolerate intolerance, we ultimately allow intolerance to flourish and assist in the destruction of the very tolerance we aim to uphold. It’s not possible to support and defend a tolerant society while simultaneously tolerating intolerance.

According to Popper, any movement that preaches intolerance and persecution must be outside of the law. “We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

5. Lastly, let’s remind ourselves of that fundamental difference in behaviour I mentioned earlier. On one hand, we have individuals (e.g., Pence) who are actively working to oppress and persecute others—to limit others’ rights. On the other hand, we have people (e.g., Page) who are not in any way attempting to oppress or persecute anyone, but who are instead simply defending themselves, trying to stop the oppression and persecution from happening. There is a false equivalence in the suggestion that both acts are acts of intolerance. It is tantamount to the suggestion that one who defends against violence is of the same wrongdoing as the person who is violent in the first place.

Just as tolerance is not boundless, neither is human behaviour. When you limit the rights and freedoms of others, when you marginalize and oppress based on immutable qualities like race and gender, we are going to respond. We will not tolerate that. And we shouldn’t.

I will end by sharing another comment that was left in response to Mike Garcia from California: “When systematic inequality and discrimination have benefited you for so long, equality feels like oppression.” Perhaps the problem lies not in our understanding of the concept of tolerance, but in our understanding of the notion of true equality itself.

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