16 November 2014

International Day for Tolerance


Step up and shake the hand
Of someone you can’t stand;
You can tolerate him if you try.—Tom Lehrer (National Brotherhood Week)
T
olerance is rather an odd thing to promote as a virtue. To tolerate someone seems like the least—the very least—we can do. Tolerating something is putting up with it—an adult tolerating the screams of a child, a pet-owner tolerating his iguana crapping in the shower.
Noah Webster nailed the concept in his 1828 dictionary: “…the allowance of that which is not wholly approved”. Indeed. He goes on to define toleration is its then-current incarnation:
… the allowance of religious opinions and modes of worship in a state, when contrary to or different from those of the established church or belief. Toleration implies a right in the sovereign to control men in their opinions and worship, or it implies the actual exercise of power in such control. Where no power exists or none is assumed to establish a creed and a mode of worship, there can be no toleration, in the strict sense of the word, for one religious denomination has as good a right as another to the free enjoyment of its creed and worship.
So what place does toleration have in a world where “me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better” (as H. L.Mencken put it, channeling Thomas Jefferson)? What business do I have to tolerate you, or you to tolerate me, unless one of us is in a position to dictate to the other? Mind you, living in a nation in which mad tea partiers fly into hysterical rage at the mere sight of a dark-skinned person voting, I am aware that for some people at least tolerance would be a good first step. Better would be the realization that you have no right to privileges you would deny to others.
The UN vision of tolerance (PDF) is a bit wider, however:
Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world's cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication, and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.
Further:
Tolerance is not concession, condescension or indulgence. Tolerance is, above all, an active attitude prompted by recognition of the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms of others. In no circumstance can it be used to justify infringements of these fundamental values. Tolerance is to be exercised by individuals, groups and States.
All right, all that seems pretty straightforward. Hard to take exception to, really, And yet there are those who somehow have managed that. Take this website from Kjos ministries, for example. It finds something sinister in the replacing intolerance with tolerance. “Can Christian children really ‘appreciate’ what God forbids?” it wants to know. The author seems to be especially worried that if “one's views are not to be imposed on others” it would mean the end of “shar[ing] the gospel”, and that “Christian moral values” might be “equated with violence”. (Why on earth would that be, unless the author feels that violence is somehow a vital part of Christian morality?) It appears there’s always some raving loon out there prepared to take exception to the blandest and most innocuous of statements.
Anyway, today is the International Day for Tolerance. Show your support. Let’s get out there and tolerate somebody.

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