What If We Aim a Bit Higher?

“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” (Ernest Hemingway)

Attribution: Donna CameronTeach Tolerance. It’s a mantra of many in the social justice movement, and I know their intentions are laudable and lofty. But I have a problem with the word “tolerance.” It seems to me that if that’s what we’re aiming for, we’re setting the bar pretty low.

The venerable Merriam-Webster defines tolerance as 1: the capacity to endure pain or hardship, and 2: a) sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own, or b) the act of allowing something. (There are further definitions relating to drug or pesticide exposure, but that sort of tolerance is a conversation for another day.)

And, here’s what appears first when I type “tolerance” into the Google search engine:It’s not enough.

Tolerance is what I feel when a clueless stranger says something annoying but innocuous; it’s what I feel when a friend has too much to drink and becomes maudlin; it’s what I feel when I’m in the dentist’s chair waiting for my semi-annual checkup to be over and for them to send me on my way with a new toothbrush. I tolerate the situations, but I’d rather be somewhere else.

Judging by the last couple of years, perhaps teaching tolerance is already a pretty big stretch for much of the world, but why not aim higher anyway? Why not teach inclusion, or welcome, or diversity, or—dare I say it—love?

I think about words a lot. I took Semantics in college, so my occasional quibbles over words may be inconsequential to most. Indulge me. Here’s another take on “tolerance.”

On the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance website, they reprint  UNESCO’s definitions of the term, as spelled out in its Declaration of Principles on Tolerance:

Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.

Tolerance is harmony in difference.

SPLC notes that the UNESCO definition most closely matches their own philosophical use of the word. Further, they say, “Tolerance is surely an imperfect term, yet the English language offers no single word that embraces the broad range of skills we need to live together peacefully.” Sad, but true. Sadder still is how many different words we have for hate.

A few moments on the Teaching Tolerance website provide inspiration for anyone who would like to see humankind move to a new level of understanding, acceptance, and cooperation. The website offers countless resources for combatting prejudice and promoting equality. It’s an informative, motivating, and hopeful site. I recommend it.

So, I’m torn. I certainly support and applaud the SPLC and UNESCO use of the term, but I do wish in everyday usage, it was stronger and more positive. I wish it fully reflected the world we want to manifest.

Next time you see a Tolerance bumper sticker (predictably on a Subaru or VW bug or bus), think about how words evolve and meaning changes. Let’s get beyond “forbearance” and “sufferance” and embrace the higher intentions of inclusion, appreciation, and harmony. Words are powerful. They change us. They matter.

Next up: Covfefe

“…we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” (John F. Kennedy)

11 thoughts on “What If We Aim a Bit Higher?

  1. The word tolerance has always felt a little condescending to me. I (who know best) tolerate you (who isn’t as enlightened as I am). And there are also things that simply cannot and should not be tolerated. Hitler, for example, and his followers. Mussolini..white supremacists. What is a better word? And should we tolerate everyone?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great thoughts, Kathi! Yes, condescending is a very apt word for tolerance–it implies an inequality, a better-than-thou attitude. And, absolutely there are people and circumstances we mustn’t tolerate. In a language with so many words, we need some new and better ones. Thanks!

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  2. I have to agree with your premise. I may wish to teach understanding. Or in better terms, the take the time to experience the feeling of being the one to tolerate you. Many cope with life using different mechanisms to choose and act to situations of frustration. If one were to make themselves aware of the wide range of reaction, they would be able to act with tolerance knowing that the act of understanding will curb the need to judge. Nice post.

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  3. I just bought your book because I heard your interview on “the one you feed”. Love your honesty and thank you for showing us how we too can aspire to be a better, kinder person…cuz it doesn’t come naturally to me either…and possibly by reading your book I can take some more risks and get out from under my heavy protective shell! Haha

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    • Thanks so much for your comment, Eden! It made my day. I really enjoyed taping “The One You Feed” with Eric. I’m so glad you liked it, and that you bought my book! Those who are able to be genuinely kind 24/7 are rare and special people. For the rest of us, it can be a struggle—but it gets ever easier with practice. And these days, we get so many opportunities to practice! Thank you, so good to “meet” you!


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