On Tolerance

I was recently made aware of an incident within an undisclosed community in which graffiti attacking a certain group of people were drawn on that community’s grounds. I have not seen the graffiti but the drawings themselves are irrelevant; it is the reaction by those of authority within this community which is interesting. An e-mail was sent to everyone in the community to inform them of the incident and describe the community’s response. Two key sentences of this e-mail are particularly interesting:

All members of our…community are affected by acts of intolerance. Any act that devalues or threatens a member of our community will not be tolerated.

The irony of this statement is apparently lost on its author, but it inadvertently exposes the logical fallacy at the core of the supposed virtue of tolerance. The author, in attempting to be tolerant of all members of the community, is clearly intolerant of certain members of the community (namely, those who would commit an “act of intolerance”).

To be clear, I agree with the author that this particular act of intolerance should not be tolerated. The difference between the author and me is that the former believes that tolerance is a virtue while I do not. This does not mean that I am advocating attacks on people who are not like me. Instead, I am intolerant only of those people who, by their actions, attempt to or succeed in causing unprovoked harm to others (this includes the graffiti “artists” from above). For all other people — including those who are different than me — I am simply neutral toward them. This may seem like the same thing as tolerance, but there is an important distinction.

First, a definition is in order. Merriam-Webster defines tolerance as

1. capacity to endure pain or hardship
2. (a) sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own (b) the act of allowing something

The second definition is the one most applicable here since it is about tolerance of other people or actions rather than tolerance of pain or hardship. A few more definitions: sympathy is an inclination to think or feel alike or a tendency to favor or support, and to indulge is to yield to a desire.

It should be evident from this definition of tolerance that it is actually impossible for certain groups to tolerate each other. As a simple example, consider the difference between the beliefs of a religious Jew and a Christian: the latter believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish Messiah whereas the former does not (beliefs which clearly differ and conflict with each other). These beliefs are incompatible and so it is impossible for a religious Jew to have sympathy (“inclination to think or feel alike”) for a Christian’s beliefs, and for a Christian to have sympathy for a religious Jew’s beliefs. Similarly, a religious Jew cannot indulge (“yield to the desire of”) the Christian that one should believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and nor can a Christian indulge the religious Jew that one should believe that Jesus is not the Messiah.  For either group to tolerate the other would require both groups to lose their respective identities as (religious) Jews and Christians. Of course, it is possible for Jews and Christians to tolerate certain conflicting beliefs (e.g. Christians may tolerate the Jewish belief that the Passover meal must be observed without losing their identities as Christians) but it is impossible for Christians to tolerate Judaism itself or for religious Jews to tolerate Christianity itself since the religions are mutually contradictory. The only way to argue that such mutually contradictory belief systems can tolerate each other is to embrace relativism, which comes with its own set of additional problems and contradictions.

The inability for mutually contradictory belief systems to tolerate each other does not mean that the groups must engage in violence in an attempt to eliminate all but one of the conflicting belief systems. They can live independently and more or less harmoniously — even if they do not tolerate each other (sympathize with or indulge the conflicting beliefs) — as long as none of the conflicting groups attack the other(s) over their beliefs. For example, the Cold War was “fought” between two countries with very different and incompatible belief systems — the United States with its capitalism, and the Soviet Union with its communism. The two countries certainly attempted to gain dominance over each other but they accepted their differences and lived independently in the sense that neither started an actual war. One cannot say that they tolerated each other, though, since neither country sympathized with or yielded to the desires and beliefs of the other. The Soviet Union has been dissolved but communism survives in other countries such as China and North Korea. The United States trades with China and sends aid to North Korea, but one still cannot say that the United States tolerates either country. Instead, the United States is neutral towards these countries, and American citizens live independently of and more or less harmoniously with Chinese and North Korean citizens despite their conflicting belief systems.

Those who embrace the false virtue of tolerance encourage conflicting groups (Jews and Christians, the United States and Soviet Union, etc.) to avoid fighting with and persecuting each other (which, by itself, is reasonable), but make the mistake of calling this “tolerance”. This mistake leads to a myriad of problems and contradictions, including (a) attempting to force “tolerance” between groups for which it is logically impossible to tolerate each other (e.g. Jews and Christians), (b) hypocritical practices (acts of intolerance “will not be tolerated”), and (c) the inability to defend oneself from attacks from conflicting belief systems (one may be implored by the false virtue of tolerance to indulge the belief of a rival group that one’s own group should be attacked or even exterminated).

The correct mindset, instead of “tolerance”, is to simply maintain neutrality towards — and thus refrain from attacks on — conflicting but peaceful belief systems. This accomplishes the same goal of giving people the freedom to belong to different and conflicting belief systems, but avoids logical contradictions and allows individuals to defend themselves from attacks by opposing belief systems. It is worth noting that this principle automatically excludes any belief system which advocates the persecution or elimination of conflicting belief systems, whereas the false virtue of tolerance implores its adherents to tolerate such hostile belief systems or accept the logical contradiction of being intolerant of them.

“Tolerance” sounds like a nice philosophical principle for a civilized society, but suffers from logical contradictions which are simply intolerable.


2 thoughts on “On Tolerance

  1. Hi Nullspace, just found your blog and find it refreshing. I’d like to comment but since so many bloggers do not respond to comments, I thought I’d ask first before I take the time to compose my thoughts…

    Take care,

    • Hi Debra,

      I can’t promise that I’ll be able to respond quickly to every comment but I will certainly do my best to respond to all comments.

      Thank you for your interest in my blog.


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