We have now, as a culture, reached a place where words in common usage have undergone an Orwellian transmutation. I realize that this is not a new phenomenon and that what I’m going to write about is not revelatory, but I thought that in the spirit of the upcoming holiday season I would try to see things in more understanding light.*
The word that I’m thinking about now is Tolerance. Thrown around to a point of genuine ubiquity it seems that much more often than not most people who use it don’t actually understand what the word means. That would be annoying enough in isolation. Making things worse, when used by the ignorant Tolerance becomes a cudgel; in its negative form ( intolerance) it is a serious accusation to level at someone, and a handy way of clubbing a differing viewpoint into submission. Although this kind of horseshit can fall out of anybody’s mouth it seems that I hear it more from those of college age than any other demographic. Considering what one would hope to be their current vocational focus it’s somewhat amusing that as a group they appear to have skipped “irony” day in freshman comp. Not to belabor this but a reflexive insistence that any differing viewpoint is a sign of an intrinsic ethical deficit on the part of the speaker is rather intolerant in itself. Couple that behavioral tic with a need for a safe space and an adult coloring book and you have the makings of someone with the capacity to be boring and enraging in equal measures. But I digress.
Simply put, tolerance is our ability to live with something or someone that’s not really to our taste. It isn’t really a big deal. Live and let live in its purest form. Inherent in that (imperfect) definition is a passive tone. We don’t have to do anything. Toleration is mostly a function of what we don’t do. Tolerant people don’t harass others who are in some way different than they themselves are. They don’t attempt to enlist the government to enforce their own personal code of ethics on others; they don’t take it upon themselves to correct other peoples behavior or lifestyle choices. Obviously the expectation of tolerance ends when somebody’s actions begin to encroach on ours. If a passing car radio is playing a genre of music I don’t like it doesn’t matter. If it’s amplified to a level where the local avian population is diminishing by the minute that’s a problem.
With that as a guide there’s a lot of room for deeply held biases within a paragon of Tolerance. You can be as intrinsically bigoted as you like and still be a tolerant person. As a practical matter the more prone you are to prejudice the more likely you are to want to make other people conform to your standards. But it doesn’t have to work that way. More often than not being tolerant can pretty much begin and end with keeping your mouth shut. That’s a fairly simple idea but one that is very difficult for many people to take in. Emotionally it’s not very satisfying. To some extent I share those feelings. The world is a nicer place when we’re actively pleasant to each other. On a personal note I try to be gracious to anybody who isn’t being willfully nasty to me. Or trying to put their hands in my pockets. Still I have to admit, that’s probably a little too much to expect from the general public.
It strikes me that most of the uproar over Tolerance comes from people that are really indicating a desperate need for approval. If you have a need to be demonstrably liked by other people the world can, I’m sure, feel very intolerant. That’s sad (in many ways) but it isn’t reflective of a societal shortcoming. It is unfortunate that the concepts of tolerance and the celebrating of diversity have become linked in the culture. At the risk of sliding into paranoia, I don’t think that’s an accident. At any rate, intentional or not, placating that level of emotional weakness could eventually become a burden for our friends and loved ones; demanding it from strangers is wholly unreasonable. The people we see on a casual, daily basis aren’t obligated to make us feel good. They can be indifferent, brusque or even silent to the point of rudeness. If they’re not petitioning the legislature to treat you in an arbitrarily negative way or assaulting you in some fashion there is no intolerance. Their unstated criticism of you might be obvious to an extent that your discomfort is understandable. That’s your problem. The world at large does not owe you warmth, friendship or any other sort of welcome. The craving for acceptance can be more than unreasonable. It can be counterproductive. As someone who’s vocal in his support for any number of libertarian causes I have found myself, from time to time, in debate with both progressives and conservatives concerning all the classical hot button issues. More than anything else, I hear people framing their objection to some idea (marriage equity, gun ownership) in terms of resentment regarding their perception that the opposition expects to have their own needs not just accepted, but embraced. Philosophically speaking, someone is a lot less likely to extend themselves more than half way to the other side of an argument.
It’s not that I can’t relate to the visceral feelings of rejection that an unpleasant interaction can bring up. The need to be liked is a powerful thing. It is a considerable chore to walk this earth feeling that you’re held in low or declining esteem by the people around you. If the source of this opprobrium is a person whose opinion is of importance to you it can be a bruising experience. As someone who can say that the admiration of friends and family has not always been in great supply (with ample reason) I get it. Still we’re not entitled to deliverance from emotional trauma, just an absence of threat. As we are about to enjoy a national day of gratitude I hope we can all be thankful for living in what is by statute and to a great degree, custom, one of the most tolerant nations on the planet. If that doesn’t help you can always put your head in a dry cleaning bag. Happy thanksgiving.
* I’m not actually going to be more understanding.