Beyond tolerance

Will take a break from the inevitable posts about leaving, departures and farewells to write about something that’s been on my mind for a long time – the idea of toleration. We’re constantly being exhorted in this time of unease and uncertainty to be tolerant of others’ beliefs but do we really stop to think about what being tolerant actually entails?

In his famous Letter concerning Toleration (full text here), John Locke wrote about the need for religious authority to tolerate other religions as that would reduce the amount of strife that would result from non-toleration. This may seem old-hat now but it was fairly radical at the time – the big thing in 17th Century Europe was the struggle between Catholics and Protestants and suggesting that the two could coexist in an atmosphere of mutual toleration was unheard of. Still, revisiting his ideas about what it means to tolerate and how we should do so can teach us much in these trying times in which we live in.

Now to get on to my point – with due respect to Mr Locke, I’d say that toleration is good but toleration alone is not enough. This is better explained with an example – I may not like my neighbours for their behaviour but I tolerate them anyway. This toleration does not in any way point to my agreement or condoning of their actions but merely me putting some of my own preferences on a backburner to avoid disagreement or conflict. Toleration by no means entails acceptance or understanding – at best it’s characterised by a grudging willingness to keep to one’s side of the fence and an avoidance of confrontation.

One quickly realises that the more one has to tolerate others, the more one has to temper one’s actions and thoughts in favour of others. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, doing this too much for too long can lead to resentment – which is a natural reaction to having to defer to others too much. Critics (you know who you are) may say that I’m taking a highly negative form of toleration and more often than not, toleration is much easier than what I’m describing here. Be that as it may, when done too much and too often, toleration can become quite intolerable.

While I cannot claim to have a solution for this problem, I can offer one suggestion. Instead of tolerating our wayward neighbours, I’d say that being able to accept and understand them would lead to a much more fruitful relationship. Aha, you might say, one smells equivocation here. Before one is dragged to the dungeons of the logic police, allow me to explain. Acceptance and understanding seem to be the missing ingredients to Locke’s brew in his quest for peace in troubled times. While one can only tolerate so much, being able to accept and understand the reasons behind the actions and thoughts of those we have to live with can lead to more harmony.

While the birds may not always sing and the flowers may not always bloom the way we want them to, we can seek to understand others better and in so doing accept them for what they are. The very act of trying to know more about others shows an interest in them – a sign of approachment and acceptance. Increasing one’s knowledge of the whys and hows of others’ thoughts and behaviour can make one realise that we’re not all that different after all and what we used to merely tolerate can be something that we accept. We recognise the differences that exist between us and others and choose to look at things from someone else’s shoes. That’s understanding and that’s what leads to acceptance.

Rosy as this picture might seem, it does beat having to swallow one’s pride and tolerate others. Coming back to my favourite topic of education and being an educator, I recognise the need to get the students to accept and understand as toleration is not enough. The route to doing this is through inquiry – having students schooled in the art of inquiry would mean that they would be constantly questioning things around and begin to question why others think or behave differently from them and in so doing build bridges of understanding and acceptance.

I do realise that I am oversimplifying hugely complex relationships that occur between people and groups of people but if we just stopped for a while, asked a few questions and made the effort to understand why people are the way they are we won’t have to do that much toleration. Now that’s not intolerable isn’t it?

toleration
A wordle interpretation of Locke’s famous letter

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2 Responses to “Beyond tolerance”


  1. 1 Charles 8 November 2008 at 8:29 08

    You have touched on many points to ponder here…..Can we all be tolerant of our neighbors who most likely may have different life experiences and world views…..Hmmmmmmmm

  2. 2 gymstan 10 November 2008 at 1:53 01

    We should be more understanding of our neighbours precisely because of the different life experiences and world views. It’s sometimes not enough just to tolerate – we have to extend a hand and try to understand.


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about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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