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The more significant the disagreement, the more important it is that something as easily settled as the meaning of the words we use not prevent us from having a civil discussion. There are many real and important things about which we differ; our words should not be counted among them.
The word “tolerance” implies disagreement. After all, we are never asked to tolerate something of which we approve. Rather, we’re asked to tolerate things that we don’t necessarily like. Approval and tolerance are two different things, and asking someone to approve of something is not the same as asking them to tolerate it.
For example, I don’t approve of people swearing in public, but I tolerate it.
What does it mean to tolerate something? I’ll offer this simple definition: tolerance means that you would allow something even if you had the practical authority to prevent it.
So, back to my example: even if I had the authority to prevent people from swearing in public, I wouldn’t use it. I am tolerant of swearing in public, even though I don’t like it.
Please note that I’m not talking about changing what people think, making them believe what I believe and so do what I’d like them to do. That isn’t something accomplished through authority, but rather through persuasion and the exchange of ideas and viewpoints. We must, of necessity, “tolerate” what people think and believe, because there is no authority, real or imagined, which can compel others to believe what we believe. Nor, I would argue, should there be, as that would violate our most private right of conscience.
I believe strongly that people should be free, free to express their ideas and to live their lives with a reasonable minimum of restriction, free to approve or disapprove of whatever they want. We all have opinions, and sometimes strong ones, about what makes sense, what is true, and what is good for people. We should be free to express our approval or disapproval. That isn’t the same as tolerating or not tolerating.
I tolerate expressions of approval and disapproval, even when I don’t agree with them.
Smoking, swearing in public, yelling at your kids in Wal-Mart, self-identifying as the wrong sex, hooking up, Gender Studies departments, cross-country skiing, bluegrass music, white-supremacist talk, black-supremacist talk, made-up pronouns, anti-semitic talk, Islam, decaf coffee, omitting the Oxford comma — there are a lot of things of which I don’t approve, but which I will tolerate.
I would like to ask my friends on the left to name a few things which they tolerate, but of which they do not approve. I wonder what they would answer. Because my impression is that many on the left use “tolerance” as a synonym for “approval.” And, when you tolerate only those things of which you approve, you really tolerate nothing at all.