Tag Archives: apathy

Tolerance: I do not think it means what you think it means.



“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means” – Inigo Montoya, Princess Bride

For the first time in a while, I actually enjoyed watching Q&A the other night – it came to us from the Sydney Opera House as part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (don’t you just love that concept!?!).

The panel comprised Germaine Greer (feminist and historian), Peter Hitchens (journalist, author and “Burkean Conservative”), Hanna Rosin (author of The End of Men) and Dan Savage (gay activist and sex advice author) – an eclectic group of intelligent, passionate people, all quite capable of building compelling arguments for their different (often diametrically opposed) points of view; it was a situation where on many topics, they really were all “kind-of-a-bit-right”.

However, even more interesting to me than the content of their “discussion” (and I use that term loosely) was the subplot of “Tolerance” that seemed to develop throughout the show. It popped up quite a few times wearing various disguises, creating a sense of irony that I found at once amusing and thought provoking.

“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.” – John F. Kennedy

If we take President Kennedy’s definition of the word, none of the members of the panel seemed to be able to demonstrate anything like tolerance for their fellow speakers, nor the audience members who asked questions.

No one surprised me in the least with their reactions to one another (how well do we really expect a born again Christian conservative and a gay rights activist to get along?) What did amuse and disappoint was their complete inability to let one another make their arguments without interruption or any level of respect – the obvious irony being that all of them were there to argue for tolerance of their own ideas, cause or point of view.

Watching this unfold, a thought wandered into my head and stood there blinking at me for a moment…

All the guests on the program (save perhaps Rosin, who insists she is a mere observer) were (or have been) activists of a sort. Is it unfair to expect such people to be tolerant of one another… can tolerance happily co-exist with activism of any kind? I mean, aren’t all activists quite intolerant by definition?

Was Gilbert K Chesterton correct in his assertion that “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions”? Does the concept of tolerance imply a certain amount of apathy in its application?

After noodling this over for the past few days, I have decided the answer is “no”.

I have come to understand that we have a dangerous tendency to confuse tolerance with acceptance. As my husband put it to me, the difference is that “tolerance is listening to the sales pitch – acceptance is getting your wallet out to pay”.

The confusion works both ways; sometimes, where we have said tolerance we should demand acceptance. This is certainly the case when talking about how people are treated based on their gender, race, age, sexuality, disability or any other personal attribute over which a person has no control – in these cases, nothing less than acceptance will do.

But ideas… ideas are where blind acceptance can be the enemy. Opinions can change with time, context, knowledge and experience. As such we must always be asking ourselves “is that right?” It is in the arena of ideas where we can demand tolerance… but not necessarily acceptance. Acceptance of ideas without thought and challenge is no different from apathy – the true enemy of activism.

So in this case, I find myself guilty of my own charge… of course tolerance can happily live next door to activism. I must respectfully disagree with you Mr Chesterton!

I think that the Q&A panelists were acting out of the fear that arises from this same confusion – they worried that tolerating the discussion of ideas opposing their own was tantamount to acceptance, so chaos reigned and no one was prepared to listen.

Indeed, the value of tolerance is that it gives us ears. We must listen to ideas, wherever they come from, so that our own are constantly challenged. How else can we know if we are right?




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