What does the term ‘tolerance’ mean to you? To many people it seems that it is synonymous with phrases such as ‘to put up with’, often harking back to classroom scenarios of the teacher informing noisome students that he will not tolerate such behavior. Certainly it would often seem to be the case that the word ‘tolerate’ is associated with negativity, and that to tolerate something is to put up with a situation which may engender negative or unwelcome feelings.
Yet often we are advised that toleration is a skill which is increasingly necessary in an increasingly diverse society. The word is that a society which is tolerant is more peaceful, and harmonious.
Putting these two concepts together, on the one hand the common association of tolerance with something that might otherwise be discouraged, with the expectation that such behavior would give rise to a more integrated and understanding society, does raise some questions, and would not appear to be sitting at ease together.
If the tolerant individual is one who puts up with the fact that other people are different, whether through skin color, race, creed, religious belief, moral belief or political persuasion, then is that individual one who can be said to be a catalyst for cultural diversity and acceptance? Certainly if we accept the commonly held stigmatism of tolerance as harboring negative thoughts and feelings, then it would suggest not.
But let us consider the nature of society, and in particular, the society that the intolerant individual may prefer. Since toleration implies differences which can encourage resentment, suspicion and doubt as far as individual differences are concerned, perhaps the intolerant society would be one where everybody is the same?
Prejudice has found more ways to manifest itself than one might imagine. Whether prejudice rises as a result of gender differences – and not merely the simple classification of male and female, or through skin color, hair color, religious beliefs, dietary beliefs, size, dress preferences or political beliefs, the one thing that is clear is that within any social group of almost any size, there will be opportunities for prejudice. This is simply due to the basic and most fundamental fact of being human – that we are all different.
So if being human is to be different, unique, individual in our collective choices and heritage, then being human is also by definition, to be subject , at least potentially, to prejudice.
Toleration is either the ‘putting up with’ differences, or perhaps it should be considered more as the acceptance of those differences. Taking this idea further, we could consider the radical idea that to be human must necessarily to be tolerant – since we have to accept that we are all different in one way or another, and that to deny this, or be repelled at the thought if the concept, is to refuse to accept the most fundamental aspect of our humanity. Difference.
One of the biggest challenges we have is perhaps to try to change the general perception of the world toleration. The fact that it is so closely paired to the word prejudice, and necessarily has negative connotations presents us with a dilemma. Separating tolerance from prejudice, and seeing the skill of being tolerant as something which is not merely positive, but embraces the human dimension, the human need for individualism and diversity.
No society, regardless of size, could ever flourish or survive if there was no diversity. Even a torrent of seemingly identical ants furtively darting through the cracks in our patio are diverse – they have to be to survive. Some ants have enormous front pincers for fighting and defending the nest, and in fact their mandibles are so big they can’t even feed themselves, and so other ants smaller than they are help the colony by feeding those who cannot feed themselves. The queen cannot move, whilst others are adept at building the nest around her. The very survival of a colony of ants depends upon their diversity, and the balance that they manage to create through that variation in size, structure and skill.
How much more diverse and rich is our own culture than that of the ants? Yet it sometimes seems that we look at our diversity as a problem to be tackled, and tolerance is the lesson that we should preach to help to accept such diversity. Yet, just as with the ants, if we lacked that diversity, our society, indeed our human heritage, would dry up, and eventually lead to stagnation and even cultural extinction.
The skill of being a tolerant individual therefore is not merely the ability to put to one side any prejudices we may be tempted to harbor, but the far greater and more meaningful ability to accept and realize that to be human is to be unique, and tolerance is therefore nothing less than our ability to embrace both our own humanity, and humanity as a whole. It is perhaps the most fundamental skill of all, and one that is crucial to our very survival as a species, as countless wars across the eons have taught us.