What is Tolerance?

This is a historical post. I wrote it before even reading The Fabric of Reality. It shows my interest back then in trying to understand moral philosophy. Here I was trying to understand what ‘tolerance’ really was. I wasn’t, at the time, familiar with Popper’s “The Truth is Manifest” fallacy. I’m including this post here with minimal change and then will comment on it. Today, I’m not even sure if trying to define something like “tolerance” makes sense. Perhaps instead the correct question is “how do we encourage criticism to flow easily.” What we call “tolerance” is really an institution meant to encourage that — but often gets hijacked to do the opposite.

Tolerance: I hear that word a lot. Words are funny things because they often mean different things to different people. And sometimes (often? usually?) other people have little incentive to bridge any communication gap.

I would like to try to come up with a good working definition of the word “tolerance” to use as a way of guiding my interactions with those I disagree (and sometimes strongly disagree) with. But this definition shouldn’t just be a warm fuzzy. It should be a substantive and, as much as possible, objective basis for determining what is or isn’t tolerance.

But what is tolerance?

Tolerance means literally “to tolerate” something. This directly implies that the belief system (i.e. religion, politics, etc) being tolerated is one that a person, by definition, disagrees with and perhaps even dislikes. This might ease the burdens of tolerance to realize that it in no way implies you have to pretend to like something you don’t like or pretend to accept things you truly believe to be wrong.

So let’s start with this as the basis for our definition: Tolerance is to literally “tolerate” something, not to accept it or like it. In fact, as far as I can tell “tolerance” in no way implies not fighting against something you disagree with; it simply defines what fighting techniques are legitimate, fair, or just by asking you to treat others how you want to be treated as well.

What Tolerance Isn’t

It is unfortunate the the word “tolerance” is in the process of no longer meaning “to tolerate” something. Instead, we regularly tell people they are being “intolerant” if they disagree with us or if we don’t like what they are saying. This new and growing definition of “tolerance” literally removes all virtue from the word and concept, for if we are labeled intolerant for doing nothing more then disagreeing, then unfortunately someone’s beliefs are going to “win out” while the others are forced to shut up. What a sorry state that would be. Indeed, it would be a form of tyranny.

Along those same lines, “tolerance” seems to also be used to mean “don’t offend me.” But I’m afraid “inoffensive” and “tolerance” may at times be worlds apart. Yes, intolerance is always offensive. But tolerance is often offensive at well. Why? Because offensive isn’t a description of some innate property of an item or idea, it’s a description of how someone else reacts to it. Thus if we use “offensiveness” as a basis for tolerance or intolerance, the word becomes 100% subjective and has lost all meaning.

Even taking the word to mean “what the average person finds offensive” is problematic. In the South, back during segregation, the “average person” found it offensive to have unsegregated water fountains or to have Caucasians have to be around African Americans. Was that tolerant? It is if we decide that tolerance is based on majority rules.

It’s hard to imagine how the word “tolerance” could ever be useful at all if we base it on the idea of “offensiveness.” Clearly the majority view on everything would be “tolerance” and the minority view (that the majority of people don’t like) would be “intolerance.” Not a very useful definition or concept.

So Then What is Tolerance?

Okay, wise guys, I can hear some people say: It’s easy to state what “tolerance” isn’t. But give me a definition of what it is. Stick your neck out and let me criticize your definition.

While I think this is a tall order, I think it’s entirely possible to come up with a workable and useful definition/description of what tolerance is.

Tolerance Level 1

I believe there are two types, or degrees, of tolerance. The most basic one is the most important one. Tolerance level 1 is nothing more or less than legally allowing people to express their beliefs and views without fear of violence either illegally or from the government – that monopoly on legal violence.

This first definition of tolerance deals only with the governments and lawbreakers, not private law abiding individuals.

Why limit this view of tolerance to violence and government only? Because this is where the biggest dangers lies.


  • Jim Crow laws disenfranchising certain races
  • Segregation laws that favored certain races over another
  • State religions being favored to the exclusion of other religions
  • The law looking the other way while hate groups (this might be the KKK or Missourian mobs) use illegal violence to control an undesirable group
  • Not enfranchising women
  • Disenfranchising women as a way to control juries or the vote of the territory (i.e. 19th Century Utah).
  • Requiring a religion to have to live in certain places or counties  (i.e. Daviess and Caldwell Counties, Missouri)
  • Legally requiring a group to not live in certain areas or states  (i.e. Missouri and Illinois)
  • Court systems refusing to apply the law to undesirable groups (i.e. Jackson County Missouri)
  • Defining a specific Church (but not others) as not a legal charity because of their offensive beliefs 
  • Prosecuting polygamy, even if handled in private only, but not prosecuting private adultery 
  • Outlawing private religious practices or beliefs

These are all obvious examples of government intolerance or intolerance though use of illegal violence. These will always be the worst kinds of intolerance.

I think it’s important to separate degrees of intolerance for another reason: intolerance level 1 is the only type of intolerance we should ever make laws against. Intolerance level 2, which I will now describe, should be a matter of conscience alone.

Tolerance Level 2

The problem that I see with tolerance level 1 is that it’s not as useful a definition modernly because we rarely speak of tolerance in such a limited way. Under tolerance level 1 a modern skin-head group – so long as they don’t break laws – is “tolerant” because they aren’t in the government enacting laws nor breaking existing laws. But is this really what we mean when we speak of “tolerance” today?

As I mentioned before, all too often what we mean by “tolerance” today is some fuzzy undefined feeling. And all too often the word “tolerance” is really just hiding it’s own form of “intolerance” because it’s being used to shut down a minority view through it’s own form of hate and public humiliation. I think it would be tragic to let “tolerance” come to mean “intolerance towards disliked minority views.”

So I propose this list on what “tolerance” should mean today. This is the best list I could come up with so far, though it’s probably incomplete.

Tolerance Does Not Mock Other People’s Beliefs

One of the most obvious examples of this for me, as a Mormon, is when various Christian denominations intentionally take things sacred to my own LDS religion, such as our temple, and show them in public in mocking ways to get people to laugh at them.

On the other hand, there is an old joke told by Mormons about “what would Catholics do if Jesus had been killed by stoning.”

There is simply no place for mocking in tolerant conversation. Instead, choose to disagree with others respectfully and civilly.

I need to make a dividing line here between mocking a belief or belief system and being a “harsh critic” of a belief or belief system. The first is always intolerance but the second could be tolerance if handled civilly. “Harshness” is not intolerance in and of itself.

Tolerance Does Not Misrepresent, Lie, of be Deceptive about Other People’s Beliefs

Clearly tolerance allows no room for lies – even of the half-truth variety. Now of course it’s not always possible to get your facts straight, so you may inadvertently say something untrue about another group. (I’m guilty as charged.) But once you find that what you are saying is not true, do not continue to spread the lie because it supports “the cause”? Do you find a way to justify the lie? Also, ask yourself, “do I at least make an attempt to confirm information I hear about other religions or am I so anxious to spread something bad about a religion that I’d rather not know if it’s true or not?”

I’ve known many people that claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only 144,000 people will be saved. This is a half-truth meant to deceive. I’ve known many people to say that Mormons worship many gods. This is not really true either. The list could go on and on.

Tolerance Does Not State Other People’s Beliefs in Ways Meant to Get a Negative Reaction

This is related to mocking, but is a lighter form of it. It’s also related to deception.

Again, we need to give some latitude to people as they may honestly not know how to best state the beliefs of another group. But all too often it’s clear that people state other people’s beliefs in a negative way simply to deceive, mock, or scare others.

Here are some real life examples I’m familiar with from a religious context:

  • An atheist stating that Christians are American’s second and Christians first so they can’t be trusted politically.
  • Referring to the Christian communion as “ritualistic cannibalization” of Jesus.
  • Muslims commenting that Christians are polytheists because they believe in the Trinity. They also like to claim that Christians believe God had sex with Mary because Jesus was begotten of God.
  • Protestants claiming that Mormons believe in merit for their works because Mormons don’t believe that salvation was a transaction that happened once and for all upon accepting Christ.
  • Claiming that Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers.

These are all examples of taking a true belief of one religion and twisting it until it’s no longer even recognizable. We must do better than this form of misrepresentation of other’s beliefs if we are striving to be tolerant.

This is equally common with political beliefs. Republicans are ‘warmongers’ and Democrats are ‘Tree Huggers’ or whatever.

Tolerance is Being Respectful and Civil in Your Communication to People of Another Belief

Treat people as you want to be treated yourself. Yelling and screaming is never tolerant. Talking down to people and calling them stupid or childish (or implying as much by saying something like “you need to use your brain.”) isn’t tolerant either. Any form of name calling or disrespectful labeling is intolerant.

Tolerance Does Not Use Stereotypes

This is another hard one, because sometimes there is truth in a stereotype. The problem with stereotypes isn’t that they are universally false, but that they are not universally true. This is precisely why we must avoid stereotypes.

Now we are getting to the essence of what “prejudice” is. The word “prejudice”’s root is to “pre judge.” It’s to assume something about an individual because he or she is part of a group rather than judging the individual on their own actions and merits.

I would submit that spreading stereotypes about a group is intolerant because of the damage it does to individuals, even if the stereotype has some truth to it. We all know that often the stereotypes end up having little or no truth to them; but even if there is truth to them, it is still intolerant to spread or use stereotypes.

Examples of this are abundant:

  • Assuming a member of one race is less smart than another
  • Assuming that a member of a group is more violent than average
  • Assuming that a member of a group is more likely to steal or shoplift
  • Assuming that a member of a group is sheep-like
  • Assuming that all members of a religion believe the same
  • Assuming that a member of a group will say or do stupid things

However, tolerance must never be an excuse to not address real issues. If some group has issues, addressing them without jumping to stereotypes is possible. For example, saying “Republican are all racist” is not the same as saying “I’ve met many Republicans that are racist.” Though it’s probably even better to drop the word “racist” all together and directly address the problems, i.e. “I believe that such and such policy that Republicans believe in has the following negative impacts on only minorities.”

Tolerance Allows People to State their Own Beliefs; It Does Not State it For Them

It’s amazing how often we violate this rule of tolerance. Liberals want to explain what Conservatives really believe and Conservatives want to explain what Liberals really believe. I’ve even had people refuse to accept my own description of my beliefs on the grounds and instead tell me what I really believe.

The truth is that we’re all the worldwide experts on our personal beliefs.

Not allowing people to state their own beliefs is so common that I’m willing to bet every single one of us has violated it as some point. It’s almost comical how often this rule gets violated. For some reason, this rule is really hard to recognize in our own selves but easy to recognize when someone does it to you.

That being said, it’s not the most common form of intolerance I’ve noticed. The most common form would be:

Tolerance Does Not Use Dual Standards

This one is the most difficult of all, because no one ever believes they are using a dual standard. No matter how much of a dual standard you support, you’ll always deny that you have a dual standard at all. So unlike the rules above, which are generally obvious and very straight forward -– at least in retrospect -– this one is extremely difficult to live. Thus we need to cut people some slack over this rule.


In reality, all these “rules” on how to be tolerant are very straightforward. They could be boiled down to this: Tolerance is treating others how you want to be treated.

Or to put this another way: Tolerance is being consistent. Indeed, “inconsistency” and “intolerance” are very nearly the same thing when it comes to discussing beliefs.

While this is easy in principle, it’s difficult in practice due to the prejudice that lives in all of our hearts. Only actively working against our prejudices can allow us to overcome them and to be tolerant in our actions and words.

And perhaps this is the most important point I can make. We all practice intolerance. I do it all the time. It’s nearly impossible to be perfectly tolerant even in situations where you believe you should. So don’t make the mistake of labeling yourself as “tolerant” as if it’s something you either are or you aren’t. Instead work at being it.


So what do you agree or disagree with? Can you advance your own contrary definition of tolerance? Do you disagree with any of my examples? Would you add anything to my list? Would you remove anything?


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