Discussion: What is Tolerance?

This is a historical post.

In this post, I continued to look at what I thought “tolerance” was. As previously mentioned, “tolerance” is really an institution that is meant to help criticism not get shut down. I wish I had conceptualized it in that way. But I feel like even in its current flawed form, many ideas about “tolerance” that I develop below are helpful.

To summarize my previous post:

Legal Tolerance is More Important Than “Everyday Tolerance”

When we speak of ‘tolerance’ there are really two kinds or degrees. The first is the more important: we must never make laws (or break laws) to force people to believe in ways we prefer. This is the single most important aspect of tolerance. [1] This form of ‘intolerance’ is therefore about violence or threat of violence, either in the illegal or legal variety.

Everyday Tolerance: Being Respectful in Disagreements

But legal tolerance is not what we generally mean when we speak of tolerance. If it was, then skin-heads that don’t break the law would be as tolerant as anyone else. So I would suggest that when we speak of “tolerance” we generally mean civility in non-violent conflict. This being the case, then I suggest the following “rules of tolerant behavior” for your consideration:

  • Tolerance Does Not Mock Other People’s Beliefs
  • Tolerance Does Not Misrepresent, Lie, of be Deceptive about Other People’s Beliefs
  • Tolerance is Being Respectful and Civil in Your Communication to People of Another Belief
  • Tolerance Does Not Use Stereotypes
  • Tolerance Allows People to State their Own Beliefs; It Does Not State it For Them
  • Tolerance Does Not Use Dual Standards

What about Ad Hominem Attacks?

I did not include so-called Ad Hominem attacks on my list, despite being the most famous form of ‘intolerance.’ I wish to explain why I left it off. (And I’d appreciate criticism from all of you on this ‘oversight’ of mine.)

The primary reason I excluded it is because I think the concept of an ‘ad hominem attack’ is really vague in most people’s minds. Most of the time I think people use it to mean ‘don’t personally insult someone else.’ I agree with this sentiment, but I list it under the rule “be respectful and civil in your communication.”

The more technically correct understanding of an ‘ad hominem attack’ is when you don’t discuss the logical issue under consideration and instead focus on a belief or trait of the speaker. I note that this can be done in respectful or disrespectful way and also can be done in a relevant or irrelevant way. (The Wikipedia article does a good job describing common misunderstandings of ad hominem attacks.)

But there are many things people label ‘ad hominem attacks’ that are actually rationally valid. In fact, it’s so common, that I’ve lost all faith in people’s use of the phrase. Someone claiming something is an ad hominem attack might mean anything from ‘that wasn’t relevant’ to ‘that was totally relevant but I didn’t like how you said it’ to ‘How dare you disagree with me.’

For example, if T. Boone Pickens makes a rational argument for switching to natural gas, the fact that he’s going to personally benefit from it is absolutely a legitimate point of discussion since his bias is relevant. It is true that if Pickens was using solely deductive logic, then his bias doesn’t matter. But we humans almost never use deductive logic in our ‘rational arguments.’ So it’s hard for me to imagine a situation where personal bias (and sometimes even personal character) isn’t valid in a rational discussion. [2]

The flip side is that it’s possible to make a rationally valid personal insult. If someone says “I’d never want to learn charity from a jerk like so-and-so that behaves in such-and-such a way” they are personally insulting them, and therefore being intolerant as per my suggested rules. But actually, their point was likely rationally valid. The key here is to rephrase the charge into a more civil and respectful – but factually correct – way. Perhaps “I have concerns with so-and-so’s arguments for charity because their arguments seem to be one way and self serving. I note that in this situation…”

What is the Core Idea in “Tolerance”?

I believe the core idea behind tolerance is to treat others how you’d like to be treated. Or put another way, to be consistent. I believe “inconsistency” and “intolerance” or generally one and the same.

Therefore, I consider the first touchstone of “tolerance” to be that it must preserve conflict. This is an obvious principle (at least in retrospect) because no one wants to be forced to not speak up about their values.

I can never agree with any definition of tolerance that seeks to remove conflict. Removing conflict is always a form of either tyranny or intolerance. Tolerance must be ‘rules of engagement’ in civil conflict, not a way to suppress it.

I believe the second touchstone of “tolerance” is it’s about how you treat your enemies and rivals, not your friends and allies. I see no discernable difference between ‘one-sided tolerance’ and’ intolerance.’ [1]

Rules for Discussion

These rules above strike me as what I have in mind when I think of tolerance. But are they correct? What problems do they pose? Are they complete? Are they even self consistent?

Please try to shoot holes in my above definition of tolerance. But do so by coming up with your own counter definition, not merely by attacking mine. This is the essence of rationality: to only ‘attack’ someone’s position by proposing your own better one. Rejectionism (not believing in anything, just disbelieving in something) is essentially just irrationality. So stick your neck out when you criticize another’s position and enter into real dialog.

I want people to really get a feel for how difficult it is to define tolerance. Even the very concepts of ‘civility’ and ‘respect’ seems elusive to me at times. I am personally unsatisfied with my own definition of ‘tolerance’ and I am still seeking a better one. It is a work in progress for me. Wanting my own views to be publicly criticized stems from my own desire to try to improve my views with feedback from others.


[1] An Example of Legal Intolerance and the Dangers of One Way Tolerance. I once saw a movie about Noam Chomsky. He was railed on for having supported a man that denied that holocaust. Chomsky was instantly branded as a holocaust denier himself for his ‘crime.’ One woman in the film, with anger and hatred in her eyes, railed on Chomsky for denying the holocaust. He calmly told her he did not.

Then why did you support someone that did? she demanded.

Because I believe in freedom of speech, he replied. This denier may be wrong, but he should not be sent to jail for it.

But this is the wrong time to be tolerant, she insisted. This is a very bad man and he is hurting people with what he says.

Noam Chomsky calmly asked, Then what is the meaning of tolerance and freedom of speech if not this? In Hitler’s regime, you has as much freedom of speech as you wanted so long as you agreed with Hitler. 

The woman just stopped talking, not having a response.

Love him or hate him, Chomsky’s right about this particular issue. If you aren’t ready to stand up for freedom of speech for a holocaust denier, then you aren’t actually in favor of freedom of speech.

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