Dictionary.com defines tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.” Bigotry, in turn, is defined as “stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.” Those with progressive or liberal points of view are frequently accused of hypocrisy regarding their use of the word tolerance. When a liberal speaks out against a practice or belief that they oppose or with which they disagree, those on the right will often cry “Whatever happened to tolerance? Your rejection of my beliefs is intolerant!” While this may sometimes be the case, I want to argue that there is a difference between intolerance and disagreement.
One of the first things I teach in my classes is the concept of cultural relativity. This idea proposes that all cultures should be evaluated on the basis of their internal belief systems, rather than by the belief system of the observer. This means suspending judgement of practices that one may find confusing, frightening, or even abhorrent when viewed through one’s own cultural lens. The reason cultural relativity is so important for anthropologists is that we aren’t seeking to judge cultures; rather, we are seeking to understand them. It is extraordinarily difficult to learn about and analyze a culture if you are unable to set aside your own cultural values. That said, it is impossible for anyone to be truly objective when analyzing the behavior of others. We all see the world through our own unique lenses, and those lenses are ground and polished in the laboratory of very specific cultures and experiences. The challenge for the anthropologist is to try to see through the lens with as little distortion as possible.
Although we strive for objectivity in our work, I want to make very clear that there is a difference between the anthropological practice of cultural relativity and the concept of moral relativity. Moral relativity proposes that any cultural practice can be seen as moral when judged by that culture’s standards; therefore, even the most seemingly horrible practices can be excused through the application of moral relativity. I cannot stress enough that this is not what anthropologists do. The point of cultural relativity is to try to understand a culture’s practices from the inside. You can find a behavior unacceptable – the practice of female genital cutting comes to mind – and still try to understand it from a culturally relative perspective. What this means is that, rather than rejecting the behavior as immoral and depraved – which are culturally loaded moral judgements – you attempt to understand why such a thing is done in this particular culture. You cannot reach any sort of objective understanding if your default position is to judge the behavior as wrong. And if the practice is indeed harmful, what hope can you possibly have of helping to change it if you don’t understand why, from that culture’s perspective, it is done in the first place? But again, here’s the important thing: understanding something from a culturally relative perspective does not mean you have to find it acceptable.
What does this have to do with tolerance? I think that tolerance is very similar to cultural relativity. You may not agree with why somebody does something, but you can still accept their right to make their own choices about how to live and, ideally, attempt to see things from their point of view even if you disagree. This applies to all sorts of behaviors, including religion; education; jobs; political ideologies; sexual practices; leisure activities – take your pick. And as long as a person’s choices about how to live don’t have an impact on anybody but that person (and, potentially, those who agree with or consent to the same behaviors), then the choices fall under the umbrella of behaviors that can be tolerated. However, the moment that somebody’s choices begin to negatively impact others, then tolerance no longer applies. Female genital cutting, for example, is not tolerated in the United States or many other parts of the world, even though those who practice it have valid cultural reasons for doing it (and in this case valid simply means that they are culturally applicable reasons, not necessarily that they are reasons that are morally acceptable).
Liberals are frequently accused of being intolerant of conservative viewpoints. This is certainly sometimes true; in fact, I would hypothesize that no person or ideology has a monopoly on tolerance (or intolerance, for that matter). Sadly, people of all political persuasions can be found ridiculing each other’s belief systems and falling prey to the many logical fallacies I’ve already written about in their attempts to prove the other side wrong. But I have to admit that I bristle when somebody tosses out the “whatever happened to liberal tolerance?” hook. This is lazy rhetoric at best and fails to offer any substantive reasons for why the person tossing the hook may disagree with the allegedly intolerant point of view. Here’s the crux of my argument: being tolerant does not mean agreeing with and/or accepting everything. To me, it means that as long as somebody’s beliefs or choices directly impact only those who believe and live similarly, then I’m happy to tolerate those choices even when I (sometimes vehemently) disagree. I’m a vegetarian, but I tolerate meat eaters. I’m an atheist, but I tolerate the religious as long as nobody attempts to convert me or use their religion as a cudgel (e.g. I do not tolerate violence in the name of religion). I’m a liberal, but I tolerate other political ideologies, even though I may debate with people about them. Hell, I’ll even tolerate intolerance to a degree – for example, if you are a small bookstore owner and decide that under no circumstances will you sell books by Hillary Clinton or Al Gore because you think they are liberal nut jobs, then more power to you. That decision, while arguably intolerant as far as accepting contrary ideologies is concerned, still has no direct impact on anybody but the bookstore owner. What I will not tolerate are beliefs or behaviors that limit the rights of others. So if you lobby for putting prayer back in schools, I will not tolerate that. If you believe that LGBTQ people are not entitled to the same rights as cisgendered people and you attempt to limit those rights, I will not tolerate that. If you attempt to limit the practices of people with whom you disagree (e.g. attempting to block the building of a mosque in your community) I will not tolerate that. If you discriminate against a person because of their race, nationality, religion, sexuality, gender, etc. I will not tolerate that – and I certainly won’t tolerate allowing those practices to be codified into law. In short, if your behavior actively infringes on someone else’s rights, I will not tolerate that. You have the right to believe what you want, but you do not have the right to force those beliefs on others.
So stop throwing out the easy and lazy label of intolerance, whether you are liberal or conservative. Instead, focus on trying to understand the other person’s point of view even if you disagree with it. Practice cultural, but not moral, relativity. Accept that reasonable people can reasonably disagree about things. But don’t expect to be allowed to infringe on another person’s rights. That is true intolerance.