If I learned any one particular cultural philosophy during my four years in college, it was without a doubt the notion of ‘tolerance.’ I am not exaggerating when I say that this concept pervaded almost every lecture of my two humanity majors, Interpersonal and Organizational Communication and Religious Studies (and I even heard it mentioned in several of my pre-dental prerequisites before too, like Anatomy and Chemistry, believe it or not).
Assuming you don’t live under a rock, you understand that this philosophy of tolerance exists not only as a hot topic among thriving college campuses, but also is increasingly becoming the lifeblood of popular culture, politics, and societal frameworks.
Of course, recent develops this year suggest just that, as Hobby Lobby vs. Obamacare, Caitlyn Jenner, and the legalization of homosexual marriage all fundamentally point to this paradigmatic shift in culture away from absolutism and towards relativism, which crowns the concept ‘tolerance’ as the ultimate, ruling authority.
However, while I do think the cultural philosophy of tolerance finds its origins in our foundational philosophy of American rights and liberties, it seems like our culture is nevertheless tipping towards the extreme end of the ‘tolerance’ spectrum in such a way that it actually—and quite ironically—debunks its own stance all along.
To get at what I mean, let’s first re-assess the definition of tolerance, just to make sure we are all on the same page. Webster defines ‘tolerance’ as, “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”
So, inherent to the meaning of ‘tolerance’ is two fundamental things: 1) the existence of disagreeing ideas, 2) acting in an agreeable manner despite such disagreement.
Personally, I think the issue of definition is the fundamental point of contention where this philosophy starts to sour. Meaning, while culture constantly promulgates the philosophy of tolerance, it appears that its functional definition does not always match its formal definition.
In other words, culture is not functionally preaching a true of tolerance when it forces a universal acceptance of a cultural norm (which is, ironically, functionally intolerant of other cultural values and expressions).
Going back to Webster, we can clearly see that ‘tolerance,’ on its own terms, emphasizes the nature of how people should disagree; tolerance never emphasizes that everyone should agree.
If I’m not mistaken, the very climate of tolerance necessitates the very existence disagreement after all. Truly, if there were no disagreement, then there would be nothing to tolerate. Tolerance does not mean agreeing on everything; it means being gracious and kind in our disagreements. Tolerance is a disposition of one’s position, not a ‘Spanish inquisition’ of one position.
Besides, how is one to accept the veracity of every worldview, especially when worldviews are in direct contradiction at some points? It’s impossible to say that a circle and a rectangle are the same.
The irony of a view of ‘tolerance’ that says ‘everyone must be like this’ is that it immediately becomes intolerant of other cultures that have views different to it. In other words, this view of ‘tolerance’ implicitly communicates that it is completely acceptable to be intolerant to intolerance in other cultures. But quite ironically, right at that moment, this view of ‘tolerance’ has become entirely like other cultural views of intolerance. But thinking it has the right to do so, it grants itself the high privilege of intolerance that it does not allow to other cultures—which ironically, is a greater degree of intolerance all along.
Are you tracking here? It’s kind of a cerebral conversation. I’m trying my best to explain the philosophical implications of twisting the definition of ‘tolerance’ to mean ‘agree on everything.’
An extreme view of ‘tolerance’ that advocates fights intolerance with intolerance is simply blind to the reality that they are just like other cultural frameworks. For example, if popular culture insists that homosexual marriage is acceptable, yet Islam’s and Christianity’s ethics state otherwise, then true tolerance of popular culture should say that while there are disagreements, we can do so in a gracious, respectable manner without emphasizing that every culture adopt our worldview. Similarly, Muslims and Christians, according to their worldview should disagree with the political climate, but should do so with gentleness and respect, without compromising their unique values, either. However, if popular culture were to discriminate against Islam and Christianity for their ethics, popular culture would not be tolerant, but intolerant.
If popular culture were follow ‘tolerance’ in the truest sense of the word, it would look something like this: when popular culture tells another culture to ‘tolerate’ this-or-that, that would mean an exhortation for agreeableness (warm and considerate), not agreement (accept or endorse). This distinction is extremely important, and I believe it is one that is often overlooked or underappreciated.
Some cultures, like Islam and Christianity, cannot inherently agree with or endorse homosexual marriage because it fundamentally violates their view of how the world and humanity has been designed and purposed.
To conclude, and on a semi-related note, I just want to emphasize the point that Christianity, especially, can never enforce spirituality through politics. Christians must stop depending on political climates to seemingly accomplish spiritual agendas. God has never and will never be confined to political climates, and the various political climates throughout Scripture and the early church and now prove that. Christianity’s salvation lies not in a political mold, but in a cross and open grave. The former does not have the power to change our hearts, but only the latter can. Therefore, at the end of the day, Christ is the hope for the world, not the political situation of the day.